Thursday, May 04, 2006

David Pang: Students' safety a shared obligation

The latest "body in the suitcase" is a tragic case. The death of Wan Biao once again raises the now habitual questions concerning New Zealand's safety record for foreign students.

As expected, there is a tendency to engage in fault-finding, blaming and being defensive: Should it be up to the system, the school, the parents, or the students themselves to provide and exercise the necessary care?

Are these students adequately prepared to study in a system so different from what they are used to? Who should make the adjustments?

Make no mistake, educating students from non-traditional nations in a Western country like New Zealand does present challenges to the educational institutions and the community.

Besides coping with the normal growing up issues, young Asian students have the additional burden of confronting "culture shock" and "academic shock" in the West.

But this is not to say that the problems that they have encountered are solely due to the conflict and stress of the acculturation processes.

Asian (read Chinese) students themselves can be perpetrators of their own misfortunes. Some students come to New Zealand with pre-existing negative attitudes. Others have conducted themselves more foolishly or even wantonly in New Zealand than they would in their own country.

It is accepted that health and safety are a prime concern for Asian parents - any parents for that matter - when sending their children abroad.

It would be a mistake for anyone to suggest that the "body in the suitcase" incident is statistically insignificant because it was one of very few occurrences. The fact is that one death is really too many.

As a "service" industry, New Zealand simply cannot allow a single incident to exert a disproportionate pressure on what is otherwise a good reputation. There is a link between market share and the wellbeing of foreign students.

In recent years, several studies funded by the Ministry of Education, Education New Zealand, Asia New Zealand and research centres at universities have aimed at issues relating to foreign students. The authorities concerned have introduced a Code of Practice, International Student Homestay Guidelines, and the International Education Appeal Authority.

There is a Chinese version of a guide to living and studying in New Zealand for students.

What unites these initiatives is a recognition that providers and operators have the obligations and ethical responsibility to provide high quality support services.

With 100,000 foreign students in the country, responding to their health and security needs is a formidable task. The reality is that it is not possible to anticipate all problems that foreign students may encounter.

Managing foreign students should be regarded as an evolving process, not a fixed, one-off event and some steps can be taken towards this.

Develop an international education clearing house to compile and disseminate information about good practices concerning health, safety and other issues; strengthen international education advising and student learning centres; encourage and promote inter-agency cooperation; develop crisis management skills in a cross-cultural setting as part of professional practice; and conduct regular reviews so that the experience gained is incorporated into programmes and new initiatives are undertaken.

* David Pang has a PhD in education from the University of Auckland. He is an academic learning adviser at the university's Student Learning Centre (Epsom Campus).


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