As universities and countries around the world work overtime trying to gain the post-pandemic competitive edge with regard to international students, a university leader in New Zealand has challenged many of the assumptions driving globalisation and the internationalisation of higher education.
Universities in New Zealand have not had any new in-country international students on campus since March 2020 and are not expecting any meaningful numbers until January 2023, the deputy vice-chancellor (strategic development) at the University of Auckland told delegates to this year’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) hosted by Universities UK International.
And according to Dr Erik Lithander, who took up his post in New Zealand after an academic career in the United Kingdom and Australia, the country’s higher education system is not in the mood to rush back to embrace globalisation after two years of having “no immigration, zero tourism, severely disrupted supply chains and almost complete withdrawal from in-person international business”.
Instead, together with the New Zealand government and many other parts of society, universities such as Auckland have started “soul searching” about the fundamental character and underlying operating model for the country post-pandemic, he said.
Lithander was taking part in an online debate on “International student recruitment: Who has the competitive edge?” at the #IHEF22 conference with representatives from the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States.
He said as a country, New Zealand managed to cope unexpectedly well during the COVID-19 health emergency, experiencing only 135 deaths from the virus that gripped the world and comparatively few confirmed cases or people hospitalised.
“For universities, not having international students on campus has, of course, been felt financially, but it has not led to the systemic collapse that one might have predicted.”
Democracy without globalisation
“So, the natural question we are asking is whether, as a country, we should make some of these changes permanent rather than going back to the way things were: essentially a new way of running a Western democracy without embracing globalisation,” he said.
To illustrate the point, Lithander said if his university was suddenly at the top of all the major rankings tomorrow, it would make no difference to the number of international on-campus students recruited because not only are borders still closed to foreign students, but “visa processing offices are unlikely to gear up in time to meaningfully help enrolments this calendar year”.
And his university would not be in a panic about a missed opportunity to flood the campus with students from abroad, preferring instead to take part in soul searching about what type of nation its citizens and leaders want the country to be in the post-pandemic world.