Covid-19 exposes the risk of chasing the student dollar

Covid-19 exposes the risk of chasing the student dollar
Dr Rowan Light

The deepening Covid-19 epidemic highlights the connectedness of our globalised world and its fragility. China is a critical junction in a vast system of supply and demand; New Zealand, a smaller node; but for both, this global interchange which has paid dividends for many years has become a source of anxiety and instability.

A striking example of this delicate balance is our tertiary sector, particularly in the exposure of its financial models that rely on a constant flow of international students to sustain university coffers—bringing in $4.6 billion in 2019, our fifth biggest export earner.

No new jobs this year

The University of Auckland announced last week that it was freezing new staff appointments to compensate for a projected shortfall of $30 million due to the lag in international students. Victoria University, facing similar pressures, has hinted at imminent doom for its own balance sheets if the Government doesn’t rescind the travel ban “in the next day or two.”

If a New Zealand university cannot function without international students, we have a serious problem.

Our tertiary sector has gone from operating as a public institution providing an academic voice in New Zealand society to a globalised educational product.

As Auckland University’s freezing of new staff appointments suggests, this change may come to the detriment of the quality of education that domestic students receive.

Fraudulent practices

We have seen this impact in other ways. In 2018, TVNZ highlighted that the buying and selling of assignments was endemic among international students at Auckland University, threatening the integrity of students’ degrees and suggesting that universities have little authority to curb fraudulent practices without jeopardising international student revenue.

Conversely, departments have been hollowed out due to a lack of funding: why teach New Zealand ecology, literature, or history, if it’s not going to appeal to international students who overwhelming want business degrees?

Covid-19 has given us a chance to reflect on this hyper-emphasis on the international student dollar. It goes to the heart of what role we think our universities play in our public life.

Is the purpose of a New Zealand institution to act as a kind of placeless degree farm serving global markets, or is it to interpret the world from this place of Aotearoa New Zealand based on local needs and priorities?

Pursuing the international dollar

Rather than being small, targeted, and beneficial for all involved, the pursuit of the international dollar has re-shaped the very orientation of our universities, leaving—as Covid-19 shows—the whole system vulnerable. There is little to suggest that universities feel an obligation to New Zealand society.

If this crisis is an example of an over-extension of global tertiary products, then we need to rethink the funding model and how it relates to the local. This will require a new public conversation about how we see our universities connecting with communities, rebalancing global status with local, regional, and iwi connections. This means being honest about what it would take to lessen our institutional reliance on international degree-farming.

Dr Rowan Light is a Researcher at the Auckland-based Maxim Institute.

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