Saturday, 7 March 2009

Duty of care

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?


a said...

(Posting anonymously for obvious reasons, but I'm sure some of you can work out who I am.)

I've been on both sides of this argument - I was an international student in NZ (as an adult, but only just) and I've also worked with international students at an NZ university.

I can only talk from my personal experience, but I think as a general rule the direct pastoral support I have seen offered to internationals has been excellent, and I believe a lot of it should be extended to domestic students. Where things fall down, in terms of the university's responsibility to international students, is financially.

I think there's a perception of them as rich, and some are. But the fact that some universities (and presumably other institutions) can and do raise fees completely unpredictably, can have a huge impact and lead to a host of additional problems. I know that only some of this is within the universities control/responsibility, but coupled with fluctuations in the exchange rate, that can eat into living expenses in a big way. Many have absolutely no back up - you can't get a student loan, or indeed any form of legal credit, if you are allowed to work at all it's for a limited number of hours and that and other factors limit your ability to find work, and you may well have absolutely no support networks - most of my friends who were domestic student, even if they didn't have local family, at least had someone who would give them an evening meal if necessary. I once lived off very dubious home made flatbread for a week because I literally had no money for groceries, and I was far from the worst off. With those kind of pressures, it's hardly surprising that a number of other issues can result.

The institution can't control all of this, but they can certainly stop adding to it and grandparent fees.

The other place I think there needs to be action is in the provision of healthcare - whilst all students do have insurance, which is generally very good, there are some notable exclusions which can make things really, really difficult for some student (they also seem to be based on some underlying prejudices, even though they are pretty standard).

Anna said...

I don't like talking about specific people much, but I've been haunted by the case about three years ago of an international student who gave birth in the bathroom at her hall of residence, having concealed her pregnancy from everyone around her. The baby died during or shortly after the birth, and the student (who was very ill from blood loss) threw the baby's body out the window. I was saddened that a young woman could feel so isolated and scared that this terrible thing could happen.

About that time, I looked into the medical rigmarole that international students have to go through to get their visa. I was amazed at how intrusive it was - students had to declare everything from whether they'd ever had dermatitis to whether they'd ever been in a remedial class at school. Students also had to go through pregnancy and STD tests.

The thing that concerned me most, though, was that for a person who's first language wasn't English, the form might be seen to imply that your visa could be revoked if you got into 'trouble' - ie if you got an STD or fell pregnant, you might get sent home.

For some international students I worked with (and we are talking three years ago now, so things may have changed), not understanding NZ bureaucracy or conventions around privacy was a real problem. There was a fear that Student Health might give information out, and this might have repercussions - likewise the University Proctor or Police. This was a real barrier for some to confide or seek help.

Of course, there are vast differences between various tertiary institutions, secondary schools, etc. And I agree - domestic students could do with more pastoral care too!