International education and social citizenship: The need for comparative perspectives

Gaby Ramia

Gaby Ramia

by Gaby Ramia, lead author of Regulating international students’ wellbeing

Many followers of this blog are academics and teachers who strive to contribute to the welfare of international students in the classroom and the lecture theatre. That is commendable but pedagogical issues are only part of the international student experience. How is the cross-border education ‘industry’ regulated? What do we know about the welfare and life-chances of students outside of the campus environment? Is education not also a ‘human’ or social service?

These are important questions because we know that international education is now a global market and has been for decades. We know that many national governments are in an ongoing race to maximise their market share. For their part many educational institutions have little choice but to pursue maximum revenues from international student fees, given that government funding rarely meets their financial requirements. The contribution of universities, colleges and schools to intellectual capital investment in the knowledge economy is underestimated not only by government but by society in general.

When we think of international education often we are only interested in our own national system, but it is important to look at comparative experience. The US, the UK, Australia, Germany, France and Canada – in that order on the latest statistics – are the world’s leading education ‘exporters’. According to the OECD’s (2012) Education at a Glance report, the number of ‘foreign’ students around the world grew from 0.8 million in 1975 to 4.1 million in 2010. Education now sits on the list of major exports of such nations. In Australia, to take an extreme example where mining-related industries are so important as to have staved off the worst of the financial crisis, education beats tourism as the top service export and is consistently the third or fourth highest source of export revenues behind iron ore, coal and gold. This is little known, even in Australia itself, and educators and educational institutions should be much better at lobbying for greater public funding than they have been.

Those of us interested in social policy ought to be interested in international education, but the welfare of international students rarely figures in our considerations. Governments, like the rest of us, pay scant attention to how students actually live their lives. To be sure, there are dedicated legislative frameworks and legal tribunals designed to partially address student welfare. The UK, for example, has an Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. New Zealand has both a specialist Code of Practice of the Pastoral Care of International Students plus an International Education Appeal Authority. Australia has no specialist tribunal outside of ordinary Commonwealth and State Ombudsmen processes though it does have a dedicated legal code, the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Framework. This is extensive in wording and regulatory guidance for education providers but it has no effective welfare function. The US has little in the way of directly applicable legislation and no tribunal, but it does have the reputation as the world’s best higher education system and more scholarship programmes than most other countries to attract talented students from abroad. The US, and to a lesser extent the UK, can strive for quality and quantity. Most other countries face a stronger trade-off between one and the other.

A comparative perspective sheds light on national priorities. All English speaking countries have systems based on full fees. In a few European countries international students study more or less for for free, like locals. In these countries internationals are also furnished with broadly similar social rights, excluding the social security system. In some other European countries and in all of the English speaking nations the story is quite different. While in the UK international students can access the NHS, few other social rights are afforded. In Australia and New Zealand the health system is off bounds but private health insurance is compulsory. Travel concessions are not offered to most internationals. In sum, international students are mostly treated as long-term ‘customers’ and not offered any form of ‘social citizenship’. None of the schemes of the welfare state apply to them, though a significant proportion of internationals work part-time and pay tax on the same basis as locals.

Using national, comparative and global regulatory analysis, Regulating international students’ wellbeing explores the regulatory regimes of student welfare in Australia and New Zealand. The book also draws implications for other exporter countries such as the UK.

Regulating international students’ wellbeing is available to buy with 20% discount from

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