Thursday, May 04, 2006

Peter Lyons: Murder points to system failure

The murder of Wan Biao, whose body was found floating in a suitcase on the Waitemata Harbour, highlights New Zealand's failings in its duty of care to young overseas students studying here. Unfortunately, the attitude of many New Zealanders to the influx of overseas students over the past decade has been ambivalent and in some cases verging on inhospitable.

The huge growth in the export education market in the late 1990s led to a proliferation of education providers, some primarily concerned with profit rather than the well-being of their students. It is an industry where growth has been tumultuous and poorly managed from a national perspective.

The police officer responsible for investigating Wan Biao's death said Asian students studying in New Zealand should be wary of fellow students, particularly those who are failing or have dropped out of formal study. While this is sound advice, the industry itself should bear responsibility for ensuring that vulnerable students are provided with a greater and consistent degree of protection and support.

The pastoral support available to overseas students varies considerably depending on the institution they study at or their living arrangements.

Wan Biao's death and the anguish of his parents highlights the inadequacy of New Zealand's approach to international education.

The industry grew dramatically with the huge influx of Chinese students in the late 1990s. The development of this industry was largely self-regulated, particularly in terms of student welfare. The decline in the industry in recent years can partially be attributed to some shoddy practices with students being treated as little more than cash cows. The miserable experiences of some students in New Zealand are the worst possible form of advertising.

My first experience of the international student market was while teaching at a secondary school in the early 1990s. Like many secondary schools, it needed to generate additional revenue to subsidise inadequate government funding.

There was much variability in how different schools administered their fee-paying student programme. Some schools paid lip service to meeting the pastoral and educational needs of these students. Students were dumped into classes with little support under the guise of the benefits of immersion.

Local students resented the sudden influx. They had little awareness that the new sports facility, swimming pool or computer suite was a direct result of the large fees these foreign students were paying. They were criticised for congregating with each other and failing to make the effort to integrate with local students. There is a rich irony here that should be evident to any Kiwi who has spent time in London on their OE.

In 2001 while at the University of Otago, I was fortunate to be involved in the establishment and management of several student hostels catering primarily to Asian students. It was an immensely rewarding experience and provided a fascinating insight into the experiences of many of these students in embarking on study in a foreign country.

Many are desperately homesick when they arrive in an alien environment. It also became apparent that though the vast majority of these students were motivated and eager to succeed, a small percentage were sent here to prevent them from causing embarrassment to their families at home. It is these students who are most likely to prey on their fellow pupils.

The vulnerability of adolescents from other countries studying in New Zealand is enormous. Imagine 17- and 18-year-old New Zealanders being sent to Beijing for several years to study in a foreign land and language. It says a lot for their tenacity and work ethic that so many of these foreign students succeed and, in many instances, surpass their Kiwi counterparts. They do this in spite of the language barrier. They are also paying enormous fees for the sometimes dubious privilege of studying here.

Complaints by Kiwi students that foreign students are obsessive in their study habits are more a reflection of our own lack of appreciation of the value of education. Most are well-balanced individuals and are eager to learn more about their host country and to fit in, but are denied the opportunity because of a reluctance of locals to bridge the gap.

Unfortunately the export-education industry has become entangled with the political bunfight over immigration. There is a lack of appreciation that the exporting of education services is a major earner for this country and the benefits accrue across a wide section of New Zealand society.

The death of Wan Biao highlights a systemic failure in our approach to international education. To rely on individual institutions or accommodation providers to ensure the protection of these students is too haphazard. At the very least, all students should have access to a nationwide network of support in their own language and should be made aware on arrival that this facility is available.

* Peter Lyons is a former international hostel manager who teaches economics at Wanganui Collegiate.


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