International education is big business, no, more than that it is an enormous business. For providers of higher education the international student market is a Golden Hind full of doubloons slowly making its way across the oceans to the (Vice) Chancellery. Cash, partnerships, offshore delivery, and tax-free revenue: these are the simple, unabrogated benefits of the international education business for higher education and training providers. In the public conversation we hear that Australia’s international education and training sector is worth about $16 billion AUD. Australia’s fourth largest export industry the spruikers sing out: bigger than gold, bigger than beef.
In 2009 there were about 3.7m international students globally. That’s a lot of fee revenue. And it is all going in one direction: it’s going north. The US, UK, Australia, France, Germany, other OECD countries account for all but 15% of international student enrolments: the rich get richer. If you Google something like “value international student market” you’ll find that there are a plethora of reports about the benefits and value of international students to the country of destination. That’s not a conversation about what the students receive, what might be good or of use to the actual learners. Nope, it’s about whether the hosts get a return for their tethered hospitality, which is an investment by any other name.
Mostly international education is not about international students. For instance, there’s an ongoing debate about international student safety, about racist attacks and attitudes in the Australian community at large. This usually becomes a conversation about whether, when harm is done, Australians do harm out of racism, or out of some other happenstance malevolence. It becomes all about the host and their hospitality. An international student may lose their life, or their spleen, or their confidence, or their trust in the community but for the host it becomes a question of self-evaluating our generosity, usually by saying we really are very nice to international students and the doing of harm is just an isolated incident.
These shallow conversations about international student safety are simply obfuscations designed to protect market share, keep international capital flows coming our way. Sure, there’s a disingenuous lip service to the idea that our education will add value to their lives, their families, their countries. But to add value, to make things better, international students must return home. No return, no value added. This is just old fashioned go back to where you came from politics, enforced by cruel and embittering immigration laws designed to discipline the foreigner into keeping their bags packed. Don’t get too comfortable.
This is all penny ante stuff, the insufferable unquestioning sovereignty of white people in white countries. The weighty and deplorable and inescapable degradation of international students is in the transaction itself. Our (white, rich) knowledge is better than yours; our (white, rich) schools are better than yours; our (white, rich) capacity to educate our children is better than yours; our badge on our piece of paper is more valuable than anything you and your fellow countrymen & countrywomen might be able to manufacture. The gist of it is we (white, rich) have value and, until endorsed by us with a piece of paper, you (not white, not rich) do not.
This discourse derives its authority from the badge, the accreditation of the institution to put its seal on the pieces of paper for which it allows its students to qualify. This sigil is the colonial imprimatur for education. International education in this context is not about empowering individuals, or the community from which they have departed. Not at all, as George Sefa Dei says, the system of international education “vitiates the promise of education, understood not only as the acquisition of knowledge but also as the initiation of persons of equal moral worth into a civic community, even a world, of shareable affections and allegiances.” The badge is simply an embossed declaration of colonial power and the requirement to stand that authority in order to receive its blessing.
To stand that authority is an act of compliance, compliance with the privileged norms of university education, norms which are those of white, rich, educated men from white, rich, and educated countries. Standardized curricula and their oversight by audit regimes embed these Eurocentric and phallocentric discourses within the products that universities sell, operating as powerful protections for the knowledges produced by white, rich, educated men from white, rich, and educated countries. Rarely, and only in the most infantilising circumstances, are universities interested in the knowledge that international students bring with them. Usually this will involve some kind of national costume, or culinary style, just to make it clear their knowledge is domestic, in both senses.
And this is what universities sell to international students; the opportunity to comply with an approved system of knowledge. Education, framed as empowering and respectful of agency, becomes an alibi for an ongoing system of superiority and exploitation. To say it even plainer: universities sell colonial discourse to the victims of colonialism.