‘Social licence’ required to reboot international intake

New Zealand’s universities will have to navigate ‘fear’ in the community as they consider how to bring foreign students back

May 31, 2020
Studying in New Zealand

New Zealand universities must address “fear” in the community to win the “social licence” to start admitting international students again, a Times Higher Education forum has heard.

Wellington policy analyst Dave Guerin said people’s concerns about the impacts of Covid-19 had “shifted” from their health to the wider economic impacts of the crisis. Nevertheless, “a large amount of fear” persisted about outsiders entering the country.

Mr Guerin, editor of the Tertiary Insight news service, said authorities had “necessarily” cultivated a sense of trepidation in the community to convince people of the “very scary potential” of the coronavirus. “Taking that fear level back down…is going to take time,” he told the 29 May webinar.

“There’s a lot of work to do to build trust in the wider community. The self-serving interests of getting students back to a pre-existing level is going to hit a lot of concerns about health and jobs. That’s going to manifest in various anti-migration views. Work rights may well be restricted over the next year, particularly as we have high unemployment.”

The New Zealand and Australian governments have flagged possible relaxations of their border restrictions, allowing international students in under carefully supervised quarantine, and have asked universities and other groups to propose workable mechanisms.

But Mr Guerin said community acceptance of such an approach in the short term depended largely on politicians themselves. He said New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison had both seen their popularity surge because of their management of the health crisis.

“If they decided to push for a quarantine and promote that to the community in an effective way, then they would achieve it,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a high enough priority.”

Universities are eager to recommence international admissions amid predictions that coronavirus-induced revenue losses could force them to discard thousands of academics. UNSW Sydney economics professor Gigi Foster said they should consider other “expenditure choices”.

“There’s a huge layer of middle management, marketers and people who sell things rather than create the service that the university sells, which is teaching and research,” Professor Foster told the forum. “Those layers have been bankrolled in part by international student fee revenue, so another area of opportunity for Australian universities is to get rid of some of those layers.

“Undo so much of the spinning of specialty new websites and hiring consultants to come up with new names for faculties. That stuff is frivolous. It’s a luxury good that we can do without. I would like to see a return of the university to its true core service to society.”

Tamson Pietsch, director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, predicted a “period of over-correction” for international education and suggested that it would not be an altogether bad thing.

“Australia at its cost turns too much to the international,” Dr Pietsch said. “The place we’ll come back to won’t be the same place that we left.

“If we look to the next two, three years as a time when the world will go back to the way it was, we might be making some strategic mistakes in terms of an opportunity to rethink how our higher education system will be structured.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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