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The business of education serves more than just profit

INFORMED by her work as an educator and social scientist in training, Melbourne alumni Xinyan Wee shares her point of view on the business of education and the responsibility the Victorian Government plays as it seeks to attract students to its shores.

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When I was invited to contribute my thoughts on the Victorian Government’s identification of ‘International Education’ as one of the State’s priority growth sectors under its Future Industries Fund initiative, it took me quite some time to decide on how to best provide credible input. It has been some five years since I was last an international student in Melbourne and I am admittedly quite detached from the city’s developments after my departure. I have also journeyed so far beyond that life station that my views are now more informed by my current work as an educator and social scientist in training than memories of my Melbournian days. Needing something far more concrete as a basis of thought, I turned to digesting the 31-page discussion paper published by the government which puts forth the proposition that priming the state’s International Education sector is a viable strategy to secure the state’s economic future.

Framed largely in business terminology, the paper highlights the importance of maintaining leverage in the global education field, most especially within Asia, from which Victoria draws its largest ‘markets’, and identifies the trends accompanying international student mobility today. Given the immense profitability of this ‘industry’ as evidenced by the figures provided in the paper, such a trajectory seems to be the most natural path of undertaking. The fact that Melbourne has just been voted as the second most student friendly city and also the most livable city in the world (again) means that the government is building on its natural advantages to promote economic advancement for its inhabitants. As a business plan, it is almost seamless, except for the fact that the business of education serves more than just profit, a whole lot more, as any educated individual should already know.

The direct returns of a tertiary certification today in the form of employment have been greatly diminished. At times, it is rendered virtually worthless with an ever-growing ‘supply’ pool of graduates and increasingly volatile economy.

The mainstay of international education in Victoria should be the tertiary and pre-tertiary education sector, which accounts for at least 45 per cent of all enrolments of foreign students in the state. It is common knowledge these days that higher education is undergoing a state of transition and face veritable crisis all around of the world. Once a privilege of the aristocrats, university education is now seen as an implicit necessity for the middle class. But unlike 30 years ago, the direct returns of a tertiary certification today in the form of employment have been greatly diminished. At times, it is rendered virtually worthless with an ever-growing ‘supply’ pool of graduates and increasingly volatile economy. Clearly, the strategy of increasing the amount of foreign undergraduates enrolling in its tertiary institutions will result in certain issues for Victoria.

For a start, it is the desire of many foreign graduates to eventually settle and work in the state after experiencing for themselves just how livable it is (a significant factor which Victoria uses to market its education by). Such a response is only quite natural for a young fresh graduate who has enjoyed his or her ‘best years’ in the state. While skilled migrant workers are always a boost for economic productivity, the direct competition an influx of such workers poses to existing residents will more or less result in implications at the political level, where immigration policies are made. In the face of stricter immigration laws, I have come across Melbourne graduates who have chosen to undertake postgraduate studies in a field he or she has absolutely no interest in just to increase chances of obtaining a resident visa. I do not know if the numbers of such individuals have become big enough to count as a trend but it should be a concern when there are young people going through the motions of ‘being educated’ without finding intrinsic meaning in it. Not only does this result in large opportunity costs to the state and individual, the ill effects of such a phenomenon will eventually find their way into the productivity levels of the state when these individuals obtain residential visas. The most worrying issue however, is how the meaning of education has almost been entirely negated through this process. The ramifications of which will surely impact the institution of the university the hardest. What does this then mean to Victoria with its vision of becoming the Education State?

India, China, Latin America and more, all face their own set of immense developmental challenges… After having attracted students from these shores successfully, Victoria should realise the accountability it holds to these countries to nurture their youth to possess a more holistic aspiration than that which revolves only around their own needs.

It is time that Victoria focuses on how to tackle this situation head-on and perhaps with education itself, rather than relegate its solution to the realm of immigration policies. It is a fact that the residential visas for the state will always be limited and it would be a waste for foreign graduates to return to their home countries at a loss as what to do after having not found a way to stay. A sound education system will prepare its students for the reality of what the future holds. And with the current economic climate of the world today, not just Australia, the reality is that a degree doesn’t automatically guarantee one a job or a visa. Can Victoria offer its students an education that builds up the resilience required to navigate the less than rosy circumstances upon graduation? At the same time, can it also afford to look into setting up and funding comprehensive reintegration programs to assist students who wish to return and work in their home countries as some states in Germany do?

The ‘markets’ cited in the paper where Victoria wish to attract its foreign students from, India, China, Latin America and more, all face their own set of immense developmental challenges in need of resolution through the talents and skills of educated individuals who are ready to break new frontiers. After having attracted students from these shores successfully, Victoria should realize the accountability it holds to these countries to nurture their youth to possess a more holistic aspiration than that which revolves only around their own needs. And it is very likely that graduates with such visions will see higher chances of success in work and life in the long run anyway. The Latin roots from which we derive the word ‘education’ from has the meaning of ‘leading forth’. In essence, education is leadership. It is a vital and powerful tool humanity wields in an age of various crises. Having received my formal training as an educator in Victoria, myself, I have always been impressed by how it has invested significantly into its early childhood and primary levels programs, as well as how its general education system has always been about the holistic development of the individual. As such, it has been able to serve students of diverse backgrounds and learning needs. I believe Victoria has much to offer the world in this aspect and I do hope these qualities become a hallmark of its international education system as well.

Xinyan Wee taught in pre-tertiary and tertiary intuitions in Singapore upon completing her undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Melbourne. She is now pursuing doctoral studies in Sociology at the Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck while working at Once Upon A Monday, a non-profit organisation providing experiential learning programs for Singaporean children.

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Meld Magazine was incorporated as an independent not-for-profit media outlet in September 2008 to reach out to international students in Melbourne, and provide students the opportunity to gain real work experience.

Many international students live in or around the city because of the proximity to their colleges and universities, and that was where we decided to focus our efforts first. Many of us live, work and study locally too. Our editorial team is made of both local and international students, and it has worked to our advantage in providing local content in every sense of the word.

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