We should celebrate international education and the impact it has

Copy of an opinion piece written by Duncan Maskell and published by The Australian newspaper on 28 April 2020.

I arrived in Australia to take up the role of vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne in September 2018. The intervening 18 months have been nothing if not eventful!

In taking up this position I became yet another member of a long line of international migrants coming to this wonderful country to work here, to enjoy living here, and, I hope, to make a contribution to the nation. Who knows? Once I have served my time you might even allow me to become a citizen.

Many of my colleagues at the university are also migrants, and many are citizens who started out as recent migrants. Universities are like that. They are inherently international institutions. They thrive, not despite, but because of, a great historical tradition of attracting the best minds, no matter from where they came. Academics are drawn here to try to answer the big questions, and to solve the pressing problems that human beings face, with the presence of students an essential part of the process.

When universities first emerged in Europe in the Middle Ages, they were highly international institutions, which is astonishing when you consider how arduous travel was in those days. The University of Paris, which emerged in 1150, had four different national faculties and each had its own language. Their motto was ‘Here or anywhere on earth’. This tradition of internationalism has been maintained to the present day.

A key feature of all great universities is their international student body. When I first arrived to take up the job, I was struck and somewhat surprised by the language of markets being used in the media, and by colleagues in the university sector, to describe our students. The marketisation of universities had reached its apotheosis when we were describing our students in terms of a “market”.

I am writing this to put a stake in the ground and to say that we must turn away from this view and revert to a better place, which is to recognise that our students for the most part are dedicated, intelligent young people, desperate to learn, and keen to make something of their lives. No matter where in the world they come from, these are the unifying features.

Our international students have made the brave move, usually at a very young age, to come to Australia, leaving families behind, to gain the benefit of being educated in outstanding Australian universities. In so doing they also learn about life in a different country and different culture. They make new friends and contacts across different nationalities and cultures and take these connections with them when they leave, usually to join the workforce in their home country, often in leadership positions, sometimes as business and political leaders.

My visits to various countries to meet with our alumni have been some of the most stimulating and fulfilling things that I have done. They uniformly regard the university and Australia with a warm heart, and great goodwill. There is no doubt that these international students glean great benefit, directly but also more intangibly, from being educated here.

The generation of knowledge, and the teaching of that knowledge, depends on open and active engagement. At the front line in this are our students, and our international students come with the additional prospect of connecting us to their home society and education system. Knowledge for all does not just benefit from an internationally diverse classroom, it depends on it.

The first Colombo Plan is a great example of what can be achieved for society with this generous attitude to international students. Many of the original post-war students who benefited from this went on to become long-term bridges between our society and the one from which they travelled, enabling and smoothing the path for many different interactions between Australia and South-East Asian countries that are now such a valuable element of Australia’s standing in the world. Many of them encouraged generations of their fellow citizens to come to Australia to study, by the power of their example.

Lifelong international partnerships and connections that arise from a high quality internationalised higher education are fundamentally important to the continued success of this nation.

And it is not just when they are students here that these people benefit Australia. Some remain or return to work here, often in important roles. A good number of key researchers doing world-class work are overseas citizens, often attracted here originally by opportunities for international education. We need these colleagues and friends as never before as we all work together to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. The world’s leading universities can only preserve their level of excellence by attracting the finest talent (students and staff) irrespective of their nationality or background. We always have and always will; cutting ourselves off from the world spells immediate decline.

So what about the economics then? Yes, there is terrific added value that is gained from having a vibrant international student body. They do bring into the country a large quantity of foreign earnings. International education is the third or fourth largest “export industry” for the nation, and first in Victoria.

Each overseas student paying a fee will spend around $2 in the broader economy for every $1 spent on those fees. These simple economic facts, well understood by federal and state governments, do add enormously to the benefit derived by the nation from having these guests on our shores, and would surely suggest that we should make every effort to look after them during this time of crisis.

But it’s wrong to focus solely or primarily on the economics. Let us instead celebrate and enjoy the presence among us of life-enhancing young people, who want to learn, and be part, for a while at least, of one of the best countries and cultures on earth. Brave youngsters who will grow as people to become the leaders of the future, and ambassadors for Australia and all it stands for.