Tara Brabazon: Vive la différence

Rather than treating visiting international students as cash cows or with suspicion, we should value the vital diversity they bring to education

August 12, 2009

Major controversies bubble around international students. In the United Kingdom, the Border Protection Agency is requesting that universities and individual academics monitor “foreign” scholars’ attendance and “engagement” with coursework. In response, questions, petitions and complaints clog managerial and union in-boxes, expressing either compliance or critique.

In Australia, the storms focus on Indian students. Unlike the British National Party-fuelled fear of migrants “stealing” British jobs, the skills shortage in Australia means that students are encouraged to apply for work visas after completing a degree. The tethering of education to citizenship resulted in an avalanche of private vocational colleges being established. At the end of July, claims surfaced on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation programme 4 Corners – the equivalent of Channel 4’s Dispatches – that fees have been paid to enable citizenship rather than obtain a degree. In response, some private colleges have entered receivership. There are claims of racism against Indian students.

These two national examples reveal the challenges of international scholarship, or – more precisely – international students. The crises are caused in both cases by misunderstanding global education. Debates in the UK have been triggered by fear: a fear of terrorism. In Australia, academic entrepreneurialism has encouraged greed. In other words, the benefits of teaching international students have been blunted by either terrorism or money. Both these motivations are misplaced and dangerous, and cloud the purpose of education.

It is important during such a difficult time to remember the gifts and opportunities that international students bring to a classroom, university and country. I have had the privilege of teaching thousands of inspiring international students in the past 18 years. They challenged me to think through assumptions. They made me a better academic. They made local students better scholars. They transformed a curriculum into a life-changing semester.

The most important course in my professional life was titled Cultural Difference and Diversity, which I taught for a decade in Australia. Anywhere between one third and half of the class came from somewhere other than the home nation. It was like the United Nations: multiple languages, multiple religions and multiple ambitions. The course also had the benefit of being delivered in Perth, where half of the citizens of the city are either migrants or children of migrants. These complex experiences of movement and displacement, while living in a nation grappling with the consequences of a bleak colonial history, provided an environment of discomfort, disquiet, confusion, patience, empathy, passion and learning.

The events of 11 September 2001 burnt and scarred the decade in which this course was taught. One week after aeroplanes slammed into skyscrapers, I conducted tutorials on post-multiculturalism, post-nationalism, terrorism and resistance. This topic had run every year and each semester would raise specific challenges depending on the student cohort. The discussion moved from Basque history to the Tamils, Maori rights or Noongar self-determination, the IRA and the status of the Indian and Malay communities within Singaporean multiracialism. It was a powerful session that asked all participants to think carefully, speak generously and ask respectful questions.

Then came 11 September. This already challenging tutorial suddenly became much more difficult. The first of the five sessions ran from 8.30am to 10am, one week after the tragedy had occurred. Six different nationalities were represented, including an outstanding Malaysian student who was working through – personally and intellectually – his relationship with Islam. Three North American exchange students were also present, one of whom held a deep Christian faith. For a moment, I thought of deferring the session or running a different topic. However, it was obvious from the students taking up residence in my office after the terrorist attacks that they wanted to talk. They needed to be together to work out how they felt, what they thought and how the future they would build could repair this damage.

The tutorial group started to arrive. Frozen silence was warmed with chatter as the students gathered for their early session. They were nervous. My Malaysian student physically isolated himself behind a desk. The rest sat with me on the floor. As the tutorial commenced, I reminded them that Cultural Difference and Diversity was built on research, thoughtfulness and proactivity. It was a course with a project: to create good policy to enable economic and social development.

After this set up, the students relaxed and did well. Their discussion was a model of how all of us can – with intelligence and respect – work our way back from the brink of social chaos and towards a strengthened multicultural policy that is not glib, clichéd or easy, but dynamic, workable and careful. The students were upset, but not in the way I predicted. They were not angry at Osama bin Laden, fundamentalism or the terrorists. Instead, they worried for the future and asked how the rational instrument of policy could improve a chaotic environment that enabled young men to create carnage.

One of the most moving teaching moments of my life was when the young Christian American students and Muslim Malaysian and Singaporean students started to work together to think about the differences between “terrorism” and “resistance”. Even now, as I write these words, tears sting my eyes with the memory. It was a teaching moment that was rare, important and moving.

Cultural Difference and Diversity educated thousands of students who have gone on to succeed in business, government, schools and universities. They became lawyers, environmental campaigners, journalists, urban planners, researchers and teachers. If they all share a characteristic, it is that they understand how to negotiate through the most challenging of social questions. Through their considered engagement with international models of multiculturalism, biculturalism, colonialism, multiracialism and nationalism, they have a portfolio of strategies that may not eradicate social problems, but that provides a way to commence that first difficult dialogue to transform a moment of crisis into an opportunity for learning and teaching.

This is education in its best sense, using the toolbox of curriculum and the context of a classroom to understand and transcend our moment in history. It was cross-cultural communication in action, training students to manage difference and understand diverse contexts, histories and political narratives. Such a decade-long course was not glib multiculturalism. Those Cultural Difference and Diversity tutorial rooms were not a mirror of our world. They were better than that. They were a model for our best selves.

We are living through our moment of terrorism and educational capitalism. International students are monitored. They are treated – apologies for my bluntness – as cash cows, a money river for our financially starved universities. This is not right and it is not good enough. British students and the education they receive are improved – exponentially – by the international scholars in our classrooms. They bring different languages, experiences and professional expertise into a lecture theatre and seminar. For British-born students, such diversity loans them a rich history, knowing that most will spend at least some of their career in another country or working with internationally recruited colleagues. We can pretend that everything our students need to know is sourced from the UK. Or we can open our reading lists and tutorial discussions to other voices and histories.

This is a difficult time to affirm the value of multiculturalism to education. Xenophobia infiltrates our institutions. As an Australian in Britain, I have seen, heard and felt prejudice that has both alarmed and frightened me. I have been spat on in the streets when young Englishmen heard my accent. Fellow academics have doubted the value and level of my qualifications because they are “foreign”. A young male gym instructor screeched an unfortunate question when I was breathlessly unable to answer a question during a spin class: “Don’t they speak English where you’re from?” And yes, even a fellow professor upon being introduced to me uttered the memorable response, “I’ve never met an Australian who didn’t work in a bar.”

I am white. I speak English. I am well educated. I have a British husband. I hold a good job. I pay taxes. If these xenophobic switchblades flick into my daily life, then what are the experiences of our students of colour, managing multiple languages but trying to gain an education?

Tough economic times create a culture of blame, shame and scapegoats. It is easier to label and judge a foreigner than to confront the consequences of our personal racisms, oppressions, inconsistencies and colonial histories. As a woman who has taught in three countries, I believe there are two medications for a sick body politic that treats international scholars as either a bank account or a threat to security.

First, it is important to listen to what all our students say about race and religion. Even with our compressed semesters and concertina assessment cycles, we must give our students an opportunity to stretch intellectually and politically. Second, we must read widely and generously. We need to incorporate case studies and models from around the world, rather than relying on histories and models with which we as teachers are comfortable. Our examples must be from Honolulu alongside Hastings, São Paulo and Singapore as much as Sheffield, and Mumbai with Manchester. Our students deserve to be citizens of the world. We need to teach about, from, to and for that world.

The easiest way to overcome fear of difference is to meet it. It is hard to express xenophobia to a foreigner and racism to the face of a student of colour. But experience is not enough. We need to bring the great scholars of cultural diversity back into our curriculum. I am summoning not only Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi K. Bhabha, Étienne Balibar and Zygmunt Bauman, but the inspirational work of Henry Giroux and Douglas Kellner. While “managing difference” is one of those glib phrases summoned at awaydays and managerial retreats, we need to invest it with content and application.

Whenever I become displaced – or, more accurately, misplaced – in a Britain that labels a foreigner faster than Gordon Brown records a YouTube video, I return to a series of articles and ideas from R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr that shaped my experience in the classroom. Moving from affirmative action to affirming diversity, he probes not only how an organisational culture manages change but how it grasps and develops the potential for wider social change. His Managing Diversity (MD) agenda aims to create “an environment that naturally enables all organisational participants to reach their full potential in pursuit of the enterprise’s objectives”. He shows that as workforce demographics change, so must management. The difficulty is that “the typical organisation has been built around the needs and natural inclinations of the dominant group”. For universities, the culture of white, male baby-boomers dominates our institutions. The issue is what happens to universities in the next decade when white, male baby-boomers vacate the campuses.

Social and cultural diversity transforms a classroom into an exciting, risky and committed place. For these attributes to emerge, students must feel involved in a discussion larger than themselves. An emotional response to ideas and people is the first stage in developing a reasoned, academic engagement with a topic. That emotion should not be denied, but tempered to develop new ways of living and knowing. If we can manage such a process, then we will build a future where borders are not protected but transgressed and courageous international students who leave everything they know to gain an education and create a better future are the model citizens of our age.

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