Beyond the business of international education: diplomacy and international student experience

Saudi students recalled from Canada in 2018 are being relocated. Service provision for these students in new host countries expresses soft diplomacy.

Imagine being within a chapter of finishing your scientific research project and finding you have 4 weeks to pack up move to another country.  This was the predicament of Saudi students in Canada in August after the Saudi government recalled over 15,000 Saudi students on scholarships, grants or in training with less than a month’s notice. Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported that the accompanying family members involved bring the number of affected people to 20,000 or more.

The decision by the KSA follows a dispute in which the Canadian government protested the detention of civil-rights activists by the Saudi government. Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland objected, including by tweet, to the 2012 jailing of Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, and the detention of other activists. Badawi’s sister Samar, the 2012 recipient of the US International Women of Courage Award, was arrested in late July. Ensaf Haidar, Badawi’s wife, is a Canadian citizen living in Quebec with their three children.

The disruption has economic and social consequences for Canada, including a potential loss of CA$140 million. There are effects on institutions, such as the medical centres in which many students are training; their departure jeopardises scheduled surgeries and affect treatments. While some extensions of time have been granted while students see out commitments and until they find equivalent programs in other countries, uncertainly remains. More broadly, we are reminded of our dependence on international students, or as the Huffington Post observes, the dilemma of institutions being “forced to exploit international students to make up for cuts to government funding.”

The situation in Canada has had obvious effects on students themselves. Canadian institutions interviewed by the PIE News expressed concern with the crossfire likely to “not only affect students’ studies, but affect their lives in the long-term too.” One unidentified Saudi student wrote:

“I’ve lived in Canada for years, there’s no way I can end all my ties in one month. This includes selling furniture of a four-bedroom house, finding someone to take over my lease, selling my car, giving notice to my child’s school, giving notice to my two part-time jobs, bank accounts, investments, etc. This was too much to be done in one month… we are now some cargo that needs to be shipped internationally….Can we start a petition? Nope, it could be considered a protest, and protests are strictly illegal in Saudi Arabia and will lead to imprisonment.”

At a number of levels, the situation exposes the potential impact of diplomatic tensions on global mobility and student experience, including in Australia where some of the affected students may be subsequently enrolled. On 10 August in Times Higher Education, Professor Simon Marginson commented: “We have to ask ourselves whether globally mobile students should be kicked around as ‘political footballs’ in international disputes over human rights or other such tensions. The students are blameless in the dispute, yet they become victims of it.” Yet the business of international education is dependent on international student revenue. As Alex Usher asks in the University World News: “International students have been an excellent hedge against uncertain domestic funding. But where can institutions turn if they need a hedge against international student volatility?”

This volatility is not constant, but the value of international students to the workforce, to their institutions and in a diplomatic context often emerges in the media when there is a crisis. For example, adverse economic conditions such as the Indonesian currency crisis in 1997, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, health emergencies such as SARS in 2002–2003 and the downturn in the enrolments of Indian students in 2009-10 raised alarm. Each of these events had an impact on the decisions Australian universities made about student management, international strategies and expansion. There is yet to be a discussion of the possible implications for Australian international education of the Saudi-Canadian issue in the Australian media.

What message do these events send to receiving countries and institutions? To continuously diversify their international student populations? To be more attuned to volatility? To caution against foreign policy by tweet? Caitlin Byrne and Rebecca Hall[1]  make a more constructive proposal:

“International education as public diplomacy offers the potential to deliver whole-of-society benefits, yet it also presents as a whole-of-society challenge. Effective leadership in this area could facilitate open, community-based conversations, drawing on state and local, as well as international networks.”

I suggest a ‘whole-of-society’ approach should include whole-of-institution strategy as well. For example, it might be argued that utilising professional networks, awareness-raising and training for those working with international students are important for leadership to address. Specifically, it means targeted preparation and management of students whose studies have been disrupted. Those who bring family members to an unfamiliar and non-preferred destination country have particular social and cultural challenges. Students who thought they might have settled in Canada, for example, will be considering new futures. Displaced students involved in research projects may need to find new supports and faculty collaborators.

These experiences require thoughtful management approaches, from the point of offer, to welcoming at orientation, through ongoing student engagement. Education institutions that value integrated information and high-value service provision will be talking to staff from enrolments, to international student advisors, faculty staff, student representative groups, peer support leaders and to community members.

Coordinated service provision through an investment in each stage of the student experience is an expression of soft diplomacy, protecting students and institutions from the effects of disputes and uncertain times. This activity operates beyond the business of international education and enhances our ongoing work towards productive relationships and successful student engagement.

[1] Caitlin Byrne & Rebecca Hall (2013). Realising Australia’s international education as public diplomacy. Australian Journal of International Affairs,67:4, p.435.