I shared the public's horror at this week's stabbing of an Avondale College teacher by a 17-year-old Korean international student. The incident further calls into question the safety of teachers - but I think it should also raise concerns about the wellbeing of international students in New Zealand.
The so-called 'export education industry' began to flourish in the 90s, and beefing it up has been suggested as a way of helping to alleviate the effects of the current recession. In its early days, the industry was almost completely unregulated, and horror stories abounded of international students lured (at great cost) to NZ, enrolled in rubbish courses and treated badly by homestay families and educational institutions. Eventually, regulations were introduced, vetting systems for potential homestay families were set up, and systems of recourse for international students established, so that the worst exploitation could be curbed.
These protections for international students are good - but are they enough? Adolescence can be pretty rough at the best of times. It must be very challenging to go through a chunk of your teenage years in a foreign country, on the other side of the world, when you're not fully proficient in the language you're expected to speak, and perhaps don't entirely understand the cultural values of your new home. International students and their kiwi peers don't always mix together, and sometimes international students are the victims of racist assumptions or behaviour. I see international students as a group of young people who may need a great deal of support, understanding and pastoral care.
Working on a university campus for some years, it was not uncommon to see international students develop drinking or gambling problems, and I often suspected that loneliness, isolation or homesickness played a part. People I've spoken to who are involved with international students tell me that, sometimes, kids who are getting into trouble in their home countries get sent here, because NZ is a relatively cheap destination. So some of our international students may have much higher support needs than your average teenager.
I don't want to criticise parents who send their kids to NZ, in the hope of giving them better lives, the work of homestay families, or the efforts of educational institutions to care for their international students. I'm sure that most homestay families do a great job of keeping kids fed and housed, getting them from A to B, helping them deal with bureaucracy and introducing them to NZ culture. But I wonder if this is enough? I know that, as a teenager, I needed a lot more intensive support than that - if I'd been in another country, where I couldn't communicate to well and perhaps felt the adults around me wouldn't understand if I tried to confide in them, I don't know if I could have coped.
Could our 'export education industry' be doing more to recognise the needs of the teenagers it recruits?