International students must mix more with locals, says governor

Lack of community involvement spawns misunderstanding of international education, says veteran politician and diplomat

October 17, 2019
Welcome on beach

International education sceptics would have a better regard for the industry if they met students first-hand, a Perth conference has heard.

Western Australian governor Kim Beazley said the “mass scale” of contemporary international education lacked the personal touch that had characterised last century’s Colombo Plan, when Australia educated foreigners as an aid initiative rather than an export earner.

Mr Beazley said educators’ responsibilities to foreign students extended beyond education. “You have to remember that you’re not just giving them what they came for,” he told the Australian International Education Conference. “They need to emerge as whole, healthy and happy human beings.

“We need to have enhancing their experience constantly in mind. We did this very well in the Colombo Plan era, when the numbers were small, but we are not doing it quite so well now.”

Mr Beazley succeeded John Dawkins as Australian education minister and later served as deputy to 1990s prime minister Paul Keating, before leading the Labor Party in opposition. After retiring from parliament in 2007, he became a professor of politics at the University of Western Australia and chancellor of the Australian National University, before a six-year stint as ambassador to the US.

He said he had dipped his toes back in education as state governor, holding annual welcome parties for international students, but he bemoaned the loss of the “deep involvement of the community” in such ceremonies.

“Gone are the years of the foster carers,” he told delegates. “That was an important factor in English language skills and in comprehending our society. It was easy to understand how you did that when the student numbers were few [under the] Colombo Plan. How do we get that back on a mass scale?”

Mr Beazley said international education attracted “lots of criticisms”, most of them based on “a very shallow understanding of what the industry is up to. That level of misunderstanding…would not be there if it was a common experience in our community that we, as individuals, welcomed the international students coming here on a practical basis.

“I don’t know how it’s done,” he added. “You’re the professionals, so no doubt you’ll pay some attention to it.”

Also a former defence minister, Mr Beazley said international educators helped to compensate for meagre defence funding through their contribution to soft power. He reeled off a list of 12 people who had graduated from Australian universities to leadership positions in the Asia-Pacific region.

They included Bank of China president Chen Siqing, Singapore’s high commissioner to Australia Kwok Fook Seng and former Indonesian vice-president Boediono. “I’ve been doing those numbers for years,” Mr Beazley told the conference. “This is merely my new list.

“Members of cabinet in the nations around us; heads of the public service; all educated in Australia. What you do in education, in our outreach to the region around us and further afield, is critical.”

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