China-Australia workshop: Managing international students

I spent the day out at Shanghai University’s Baoshan campus, kickin’ it with members of the Chinese and Australian academic fraternity who were sharing their respective experiences of managing international students.

Australia has one of the highest per capita shares of international students, allowing Australian institutions to develop systems and processes for their management, together with national legal frameworks and policy standards. Meanwhile, China is seeing increasing global demand for its domestic education services, and is seeking to evolve its own infrastructure, service standards and capacity to handle current and future growth.

I met several interesting people from the sector: policy innovators, leading industry advisers, and miscellaneous misfits who were simply good value for a chat. Here’s a quick wrap of the day…

Most insightful point: That the presence of international students has forced Australian higher education institutions to provide international student support services, which has had the positive knock-on effect of placing focus on domestic student welfare as well. Market forces at their best? Probably.

Most agreeable point: That we should be doing more to leverage the diversity of student populations for better cross cultural understanding. Separate from this event, but along a similar theme, I coordinated a Monash-Jiao Tong joint cross-cultural eLearning class last week.

Presentation highlight: The ubiquitous Chinese “Rising Anti-virus” lion mascot popping up on screen, pointing its backside towards us and wagging its tail as it scanned the unsuspecting presenter’s PC for viruses. The likeable but ultimately distracting cat remained on screen for about twenty minutes. yes, twenty minutes. No one did anything. The Aussies in the crowd weren’t entirely sure whether it was part of the presentation or not (given the relative quality of the presentations, their confusion could be forgiven. See below).

Presentation lowlight: A Shanghai government official, discussing the ramifications for international students who violate their visa conditions, had a slide containing a nasty (and prominent) skull/bones image with the statement “Drugs are dangous to your hearth!” (sic). It was kept on screen for no less than five minutes. I can forgive a couple of large-font typos during a professional conference. No, actually I cannot.

Refreshing approach of the day: The Chinese candidness about problems they’ve had with international students and ‘bad news stories’, such as students being victims of local crime. The Australian side, on the other hand, turned on the spin when it came to international student safety. My beautiful homeland down under may be safer than many other places, no doubt, but it is certainly no safe haven: many international students are affected by petty and beyond-petty crime, and I have taped assertions from international students in Australia to prove it. I hope the denials are purely for the sake of maintaining a positive public perception, and not an actual policy position. The things we do to protect our third biggest export earner.

Questionable statement of the day: “Education is not a commodity.” Well, I disagree. One only needs to look at the way education is ‘traded’ on the ‘open market’. Universities market themselves aggressively. Governments market education. International student income is classified as an export item. Online degree factories are booming. The semantics of the statement could be argued for hours, but there is no denying that education is an openly tradable good with many substitutes. Ignoring the fact is counterproductive, because we must ensure the customers (students) of the traded goods (qualifications, degrees) are being fairly treated and getting value for money from suppliers (universities, schools). This is evidently not happening, and it doesn’t take too many discussions with the student body to acknowledge this.

Various reminders of the day:

– International education is a great sector in which to operate.

– Never forget about students’ needs.

– We need to think innovatively (game changingly, even) when it comes to educational approaches in a globalised environment.

– People generally make bad presentations. Don’t make bad presentations.

– Never misspell bold statements in a presentation, and if you do, don’t keep it up on screen for five minutes.

– Don’t use an anti-virus product that ships with annoying screensavers, wallpapers and/or has any remotely cutesy rubbish cluttering your screen.

Written by

Suren Gunatillake

2 thoughts on “China-Australia workshop: Managing international students

  1. Cheers, Suren

    So, this is what you do when you aren’t sitting in a back lane-way, huh?

    Sounds like an interesting discussion to be part of, but I would argue that the “product” offered by the education industry is the opportunity to learn, rather than the learning itself. It is up to the individual students to make the most (or least) of the opportunities that a given institution affords them, just as it is up to the institution to build its reputation based on the opportunities it offers.

    Things like support services for international and domestic students can remove some of the barriers that stand in the way of students learning, but they don’t add any motivation for the students to learn.

    How employers perceive the education market is probably the exact opposite of what I’ve just said, but isn’t that why companies interview people for jobs instead of just looking at their qualifications?

  2. We should continue this in said lane-way 😉

    There’s something to be said on maximising potential, which is possibly the number one responsibility of a learning provider, aside from providing a safe and secure environment.

    Education providers do provide learning opportunities (services) which are provided to their customers (students). While it is certainly the personal responsibility of students to make the most of the services being offered, it is vital that universities/training companies are delivering those services in a way that maximises the potential of a diverse student population. Delivering classes that are boring/impractical, or employing teachers that lack solid insight or cross-cultural understanding, are not great ways to maximise potential. This doesn’t always translate into an institution’s reputation, as many (particularly international) students don’t bother to report problems. Ranking services drive much of an institution’s reputation, and none of these look deeply at student satisfaction metrics.

    I disagree that there’s a disconnect between good student support services and propensity/motivation to learn. If a student is unsettled, for whatever reason, they are less likely to care about performing academically. I’m sure there’s some research out about this – will let you know.

    Depending on the industry, qualifications and the reputation of the awarding university, certainly does matter. Some multinationals will not consider candidates that aren’t from specific universities. I know of such firms in Shanghai that will only hire graduates from Fudan or Jiao Tong. Good way to filter thousands of applications, I guess 😉

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