NZ universities must start thinking global

20:20, Dec 29 2011

Educational institutions will have to be smart and flexible if they are to achieve the Government's goal of doubling earnings from overseas students over the next 15 years, writes Victoria University vice-chancellor Pat Walsh.

The Government has set the education sector the ambitious goal of doubling what the country earns from international education over the coming 15 years. Although this is a sector-wide mission, our universities must play a leading role.

With global competition intensifying for students, staff and reputation, however, simply marketing ourselves from afar will not work. If we are to be truly successful, we need to look beyond the number of student arrivals and continue our efforts to become truly internationally engaged institutions.

Universities are inherently international places. For the first half of Victoria's 112-year existence, academic staff were sourced almost exclusively from overseas. This changed markedly post-war but, even today, around half our staff come from overseas, placing Victoria among the top-20 most internationally diverse universities in the world. The focus of the last decade switched to attracting international students, with numbers jumping from roughly 800 at the turn of the millennium to almost 3000 today.

International students undeniably bring much-needed revenue, which is exactly why it has become such a saturated market. For a few brief years in the previous decade, when a low dollar and Australia's restrictive visa regime converged to deliver New Zealand a boom in Chinese students, it looked tantalisingly simple.

Now, up against higher-profile, less distant and often better- resourced destinations throughout the English-speaking world - not least our trans-Tasman neighbours - we need to provide students with compelling reasons to come here. I believe we can, but it requires real substance behind the sales pitch.

International students must receive an education that is authentic (the New Zealand dimension if you like) but also prepares them for professional careers wherever in the world they land after graduating. Realistically, for most, that will not be New Zealand.

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At the same time, we need to maximise the international opportunities available to all our students. Alongside the growing list of exchange programmes offering our staff and students the chance to research, teach and learn overseas, we are seeking innovative ways to expand our students' horizons in New Zealand.

Victoria's international leadership programme, for example, takes advantage of our capital-city location to expose its students to parliamentarians, the diplomatic community, and a range of internationally focused organisations.

Another important component of boosting international profile and graduate career prospects is submitting our professional programmes to the scrutiny of international accreditation.

This led Victoria's Faculty of Commerce and Administration to seek accreditation from three prestigious and globally recognised agencies (AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA), a painstaking but ultimately successful process that placed the faculty among a globally select group and promises to attract students and employers alike.

The internationalisation strategies we follow cannot be limited to attracting international students. Among the Government's targets is a more than three-fold increase in the number of international students enrolled with New Zealand providers overseas.

The university sector will have to think creatively if it is to contribute meaningfully to achieving this goal. New Zealand universities' rich array of international joint programmes is a good foundation on which to build, but we will also need to carefully consider overseas capital investment.

Victoria's joint programme campus in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, provides a successful model for how this can be done in terms of providing high-quality but affordable pathways to study in New Zealand.

Several-hundred Vietnamese students have studied at our campus before transferring to complete their degree studies in Wellington. While such ventures boost the profile of New Zealand international education, overseas investment like this comes with substantial costs.

Just as New Zealand's other exporters must choose their markets, so too must our universities. Deploying our resources indiscriminately risks not being noticed anywhere. The alternative is developing distinct niches in countries with shared history and long-term potential for growth.

Victoria, for example, has paid particular attention to Southeast Asia, where it has been able to build on New Zealand's earlier capacity-building efforts. We also have long-standing and productive ties in China, but have to be realistic about how we achieve visibility in that vast market.

The strategic relationships we have concentrated on - in China, Vietnam, Malaysia and, most recently, Indonesia - have required us to show we are a serious long- term partner with much to offer.

Each and every relationship has involved ongoing multilevel engagement and close attention to the diverse academic needs of students from these countries.

International connectedness brings a multitude of benefits and, in today's increasingly global environment, is a prerequisite for any university aspiring to the top echelons. It is not just about bringing the world to New Zealand, but also taking what is unique about New Zealand to the world and promoting an international outlook among all our students.