What are education exports, anyway?

While education is now Australia’s third largest export industry (behind coal and iron ore, but ahead of tourism), I still find that use of ‘export’ a little odd. For the most part, we ‘import’ the students, though now an increasing number of campuses overseas are either owned by Australian universities, or have Australian universities as major partners. It was not always like this, and a new book,  Making a Difference. Australian International Education, (ed. Dorothy Davis and Bruce McIntosh) tells that story, and tells it well.

It is at once a book of history, a book of analysis, a book of personal accounts, and a thoroughly absorbing read, if education interests you. It certainly interests me. The first wave of Colombo Plan students to hit the University of New England, when I was an undergraduate there, came in 1956. We were a bit apprehensive, though not hostile, but all that disappeared quickly when the smells of the new students’ midnight cooking began to spread through our residence.

My first real academic job, when a History Honours student, was to coach a Colombo Plan student from Malaya in History. I worked diligently at it, and so did he, but I was not effective. His problem was inadequate English, and I found it hard to teach him how to write a good English sentence. The level of English competence possessed by some of our foreign students remains a problem, and testing that competence, as well as testing what in fact the students actually know, when English is not the students’ first language, is something that must still worry teachers everywhere.

In 1986 the Colombo Plan system, where Australia had funded the education of a chosen number of foreign students, was replaced by a market system, where universities were able to enrol foreign students, and charge admission fees, with certain provisos. The transition to the new system was not widely welcomed, and universities were often troubled  by the numbers and the new difficulties that came with them. On the whole, foreign students wanted skills that were instantly usable back home, and that meant heavy enrolments in IT and management courses.

So some parts of the university did well out of the change while other parts saw little of the returns, to their chagrin. In time the more adventurous of the staff, in every discipline and field, began to argue that their area just had to become more entrepreneurial, and go out into the world and find customers. So the balance became less loaded in favour of IT and business, and now you can find international students everywhere.

I went through the first twelve or so years of this growth, and it could be heady stuff. I went three or four times a year to Asian countries, for brief visits and quick meetings, and signed lots of agreements with foreign universities. I learned a lot, and worried a bit, too. Would we lose our intellectual property to our partners? That didn’t happen, as we kept improving and enhancing what we did.

In time I became more sanguine. The University of Canberra had been involved with English-language teaching for Vietnamese cadres from the time that the Whitlam Government looked for something to do that would be of benefit to the devastated country. By the time I arrived in Hanoi, twenty years later, many of the UC Vietnamese graduates were in the highest places in their government. Their English was good, too, and many recalled fondly their experience of  life as a student in Canberra.

I came to feel that whatever else we were doing, if we taught foreign students well, and respected them, they would in time be great ambassadors, not just for the University, but for Australia as a whole. By and large, that is what has happened. This book has story after story of people who came here to learn, and went back to their own country to ‘make a difference’ (that was one of the UC mottoes, back in the 1990s).

A great deal has happened since I left higher education ten years ago. More than 300,000 foreign student now study for Australia awards, and  about 25,000 foreign school students can be found in our schools. Their contribution to the economy is significant but, I repeat, it is their contribution to a more harmonious and productive world when they return which will the greatest benefit of all.

This is a big, well researched and well illustrated book, published by UNSW Press with a rrp of $54. I don’t think it is quite a Christmas present, but anyone who has a keen interest in this major, and astonishingly successful, Australian endeavour should have a copy.

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