Embrace foreign students - we might need them one day

There's a young woman in my cohort at university, Helen*, who is in New Zealand on a student visa. She (or rather, her government) pays almost five times the fees of domestic students. For my course, that's about $72K per year compared to $15K.

I'll get to the dollars later, because I think it's important to put the people first, to imagine who they are, who they might become and how their desire to study here is a golden opportunity for New Zealand. The riches go well beyond the financial if we consider how these students could become international ambassadors for our country and our culture into the future.

I think back to when I worked in recruitment and how impressed I was with a CV that crossed my desk listing Harvard or Oxford. I was always interested in talking to Kiwis who had studied at international universities. I loved seeing how their immersion in another culture as a student had shaped their development and the different perspective they brought back to New Zealand.

I imagine some of our international students, like the Chinese girl from a politics class I once took, Christine, who was bemused by our angst about voter turnout, having come from a city where elections were held at the whim of the government and you didn’t know year to year whether you’d get one or not.

I imagine someone like her maybe becoming a politician herself or starting a business and how her experience in New Zealand could frame her response when a New Zealander came seeking a business or political opportunity. I imagine her future employers looking at her CV and feeling that thrill of recognition that this person studied in New Zealand. Wow, New Zealand? She must be good.

Because it's not just about the money (I promise we'll get to the money), it's about seeding our culture among international students who will carry it with them and give us a foothold in other countries. It’s also about maintaining enough critical mass in the education sector to continually build upon and improve our offering. It’s a fine balance, and we need enough people going through the system to invest in attracting good staff, research and facilities. To have universities which are the Harvards of the Pacific, this is essential.

And it’s the Pacific bit which is key here. I have noticed among the growing interest in Māori language and culture more than a smattering of immigrants – South Africans, Indians, English and Chinese – showing up at wananga and Te Reo Māori courses.

I have a vision of international students who have an appreciation of our indigenous culture, having experienced our manaakitanga during their time here. They might learn a little reo, might have suffered awkwardly through their first powhiri and maybe grasped enough of our culture to know that indigenous people aren’t victims defined by statistics. A few might have gone further, been enveloped by the quest for understanding Te Ao Māori and have something eternal lodged inside them. Imagine how cool it would be for New Zealand to not only provide a world class education to our manuhiri (visitors) but also promote our culture too.

So that’s my (perhaps naïve) lovely vision. But I get it – it’s an election year and painting a picture of a congested and out-priced Auckland and blaming immigrants is a tried and tested formula from Trump to Brexit. But New Zealand politicians pushing this line need to be careful what they wish for. We might not always be so sought after. We can’t assume people will always want to come here. Students like Helen and Christine are brave, curious people who have made a conscious decision to come here and they could easily go elsewhere.

How long before Japan – famously protectionist on immigration – might take another of its epochal shifts in public policy and start attracting migrants to solve its low birth rates and ageing population.

If politicians are really serious about axing immigration in high numbers, every one of those people who feels shafted by a quick political decision has the potential to become the opposite of the great ambassadors they could be.

I said we’d get to the money, and it’s not trivial. It’s a $4 billion export industry – producing economic activity that pays taxes that help pay for hospitals, schools, roads – pick your own publicly funded interest area. This is more than twice the value of the much-lauded wine export industry ($1.61 billion).

For those who talk about a diverse economy and one that shouldn’t rest as heavily on tourism and dairy – partly because of their impacts on the environment – selling education and expertise should be right up there with green-tech. Helen Clark used to talk about the Knowledge Economy and the Knowledge Wave. What could be more ‘Knowledge Economy’ than selling education.

It seems ludicrous to try and sell less of something we are good at.

So, yes improve the quality of the courses, crack down on cheats and substandard offerings. The credibility and integrity of the sector is key to its value.

But value the people too – we just might need them one day. Helen might be operating on you, in Auckland, London or Shanghai. Christine might offer your son or daughter the big employment break they need when their CV crosses her desk in Beijing and she sees ‘New Zealand’ written there.

*Names changed

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