As it looks to the future, New Zealand is wrestling with its colonial past. Should it be defined in the 21st century by its historic links with the Western world, or by its location in the Pacific Ocean?
This debate came to the fore during the referendums held this year and last on whether to change the country’s flag, which ultimately resulted in voters opting to keep the current one, incorporating the UK’s Union flag.
It is also a question that is being much discussed in New Zealand’s eight universities. For Grant Guilford, vice-chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington, the direction the country should go in is clear: it should no longer be a “creature of Europe” and instead should become a “creature of the Asia-Pacific”.
“We are very much of the view that we are a university of the Asia-Pacific; that is our region of interest,” Professor Guilford said. “That’s where 70 per cent of our trade comes from, it’s where almost all our students come from.
“We are very focused on relationships between us and good universities in that region. That is the way we see the world now.”
However, Professor Guilford, an expert in veterinary nutrition, acknowledged that this was “not an easy transition”. In particular, many academics “still have strong relationships back to the universities that they were exposed to in their own education”, he said, often in the UK and the US.
The shift has been easier in some disciplines, particularly the sciences, than in others such as the humanities and social sciences, Professor Guilford said. But he said that New Zealand’s broader shift, from being a British and Māori community to a multicultural society with significant Asian immigration, created an important role for social researchers.
“The work of modern humanities is that transition: what is it to be a New Zealander in the current social system where we are now confronting multiculturalism, and helping people to understand that in a small South Pacific nation,” Professor Guilford said.
Shifting a sector’s focus in this way always brings risks. In particular, and in common with many other international higher education destinations, there is a danger that New Zealand will become too reliant on China for overseas students and the income that they bring; and that, as China’s own universities develop, or as its economy falters, that source could dry up.
However, Professor Guilford argued that higher education systems across Southeast Asia were at different stages of development, and that these countries would need to send students overseas for a “long period of time”.
New Zealand is particularly looking to attract PhD students from overseas and, under a government scheme, international research students pay the same tuition fees as home learners.
Professor Guilford said that there were other factors that could give New Zealand a competitive edge over other recruiting nations.
“We have the advantage that these economic ties are now very deep and so international students coming to New Zealand from Southeast Asia and China do participate in and enjoy their own cultures in our country,” he said.
“And when you think about the way students make their decisions, they look for a university of quality, and our universities come up on that list quite quickly, but they also look for a country that is safe and provides them with a great student experience, so the value proposition is quite strong.”