Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

At the beginning of this year a young Indian student who was working part-time to finance his studies was fatally stabbed in Melbourne. The murder of Nitin Garg become the symbol of the hostility that is building up in certain communities in Australia towards international students.

Since the incident, Indian students have been voting with their feet and some Australian universities are now admitting to a decline of 10-20 per cent in applications from international students and a reduction of 70-80 per cent from India. Economists have already calculated that this one incident will cost the country A$2bn ($1.9bn).

From being a tiny, isolated sector at the beginning of the 1980s, higher education in Australian universities developed an annual growth rate of 15-20 per cent between 1982 and 2008, mostly through international expansion.

Perhaps the Australian system even became a victim of its own success. Marketing managers at universities and business schools were under pressure to keep the numbers up. In private, many Australian admissions officers now admit that they were keen to attract many Chinese or Indian students because “times were a tough
and they needed the revenues”.

But worldwide criticism of Australia’s policy of recruiting international students is somewhat ironic, since for years many countries have been looking for ways to imitate its methods.

Examples of overseas students being used as fillers on cash cow programmes and helping a university from closing courses in institutions worldwide are very easy to find. There are universities in the UK today that are running courses with up to 400 participants where 70-80 per cent of the students are Indians. There are Canadian masters programmes where you will find 75 per cent Chinese students. I have seen French universities recruiting massively in Asia to keep open courses that no longer interested domestic students. And I have witnessed a class in a Scottish university where 35 of the 38 participants were French.

The economics of recruiting massive numbers of students from one country are easy to understand. It is far more cost effective to go to one country and come home with a class full of students in your suitcase, rather than the added
cost and time of marketing in several regions. But what international experience does the institution really think it is providing? Some so-called “international classes” are so monocultural these days that it would be easier for the institution simply to fly their professors out to the country in question. And it would be a lot more cost effective for the students.

International students make an enormous contribution to learning in higher education. They bring diversity in mindset and methodology, and the confrontation of new ideas benefits all those involved. But this must be controlled and it must be without a context, where there is true multiplicity, rather than pretence.

It is time therefore, for universities to impose quotas on their international students. This should be at a class level as well as at an institutional level. Any class where more than 25 per cent of the students is coming from one nation is in danger of creating a ghetto experience, which at present is far too easy to find. And universities might think about
co-ordinating with their local competitors so that they do not collectively put too much strain on the community. Of course, we should condemn racists and it is our job to educate tolerance in a heterogeneous society. But we cannot ignore the fact that large-scale migration in a short period of time can put strains upon the environment. When they leave our courses at
6pm, overseas students should not become the victims of a policy of keeping the numbers
up and the revenues rolling in. And Nitin Garg should be remembered as a sober and tragic lesson of what can happen when such common sense is forgotten.

Mark Thomas is associate dean and director for international affairs and professor of strategic management at Grenoble Ecole de Management, France.

Be alerted on UK schools

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.