International education’s hidden taonga

By Chris Beard
The number of international students in Aotearoa has dropped from more than 115,000 pre-Covid-19 to fewer than 25,000. File photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Once the Covid-19 storm abates, the international education field will hopefully be ready to unearth its taonga. Chris Beard explains what that is. 

With the closing of the borders, the international education sector has experienced a profound shock.

The number of international students in Aotearoa has dropped from more than 115,000 pre-Covid-19 to fewer than 25,000. The once-buoyant export sector that generated more than $4 billion per annum is facing an existential crisis.

The flow-on effect to education providers is substantial, with the closure of international programmes, staff layoffs and broad cuts to operating expenditure across institutions. The number of experienced international education practitioners is steadily diminishing, due to either layoffs or career shifts, which will complicate the sector’s capacity to recover.   

Sometimes the air seems cleaner and clearer, however, after a fierce storm has passed. We are now looking at a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset export education with firmer foundations.

When compared to other lead export earners prior to the pandemic, the international education sector lacked a specialist profession and dedicated researchers to underpin policy and practice.

Recognising the need to invest in professional practice, the Government’s International Education Strategy 2018-2030 set a mid-term goal to establish international education as a subject discipline. This Ministry of Education initiative reflected proactive thinking that invests in evidence-based practice, innovation, and global citizenship learning for all students.

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Education was the first programme in Australasia to offer a postgraduate course in international education that critiqued export education.

Since 2015, this course has identified relevant research findings and encouraged participants to critically engage with the sector’s key concepts and developments. The move to establish international education as a subject discipline that informs the sector has piqued interest among international education leaders in Australia and the United Kingdom.

It is an approach that also serves the interests of education providers coming to grips with Aotearoa’s new Education (Pastoral Care of Tertiary and International Learners) Code of Practice 2021. Education providers are required to provide tailored services for different student cohorts, and it seems that specialist training will be needed to achieve this goal for international students.

A specialist profession with sector-specific credentials provides tools to unearth international education’s hidden taonga.

In the pre-Covid era, the lion’s share of industry money was invested in marketing and recruitment, so international students’ funds of cultural knowledge were largely untapped for educational purposes.

With a strategic reset, there is immense potential to turn this around so that trained sector specialists are available to support education providers to integrate international students and allow their voices to bring a unique cultural lens to the learning environment. A high-level conversation on how to maximise the educational benefits of international students and simultaneously support their integration is long overdue.

Another aspect of international education’s hidden taonga is that it offers a way of making sense of the nation’s cultural identity through an outside-looking-in lens. It possesses mana-enhancing potential for exporting the nation’s unique biculturalism to the world’s students. Indeed, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s four bicultural values for foreign affairs are a neat fit for international education:

manaaki – kindness or the reciprocity of goodwill;

whanaunga – our connectedness or shared sense of humanity;

mahi tahi and kotahitanga – collective benefits and shared aspiration;

kaitiaki – protectors and stewards of our intergenerational wellbeing.

With export education in reset mode and Mahuta, there is a window of opportunity here for the two sectors to more closely align for international relations purposes.  

Another aspect of international education’s hidden taonga is its capacity to strengthen social cohesion in a multicultural society.

A lack of cultural and religious literacy among educators in relation to ethnic minorities was identified as an area of concern by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain on March 15, 2019.

The presence of international students offers domestic students opportunities to meet citizens of the world. It enables rich intercultural exchange, not only within learning environments but also in social and living contexts.

In other words, international students provide springboards for exploring cultural and religious literacy and strengthening the education sector’s capacity to support all students’ intercultural learning, which is indispensable for reducing prejudice and racism.

International education is a sector under intense stress, and is facing an uncertain future. Only small numbers of new or returning students are anticipated for 2022.

Yet it may be that once the storm abates, the international education field is ready to unearth its taonga - a new, invigorated sector with students at its heart, which enriches Aotearoa’s education system, and enhances New Zealanders’ capacity to engage with the world.  


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