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.