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Indian students in NZ: Australia as cautionary tale

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16 December 2010 11:47

Dr Andrew Butcher is Director of Policy and Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

A recent Department of Labour report on international students in New Zealand shows two trends that might be eerily familiar to Australian readers of this blog: there is a rapid increase in students from India and, overwhelmingly, they are studying in New Zealand as a stepping stone to permanent residence. The rise in Indian students in New Zealand is being matched by an increase in dodgy private training and education providers.

While in Australia recently I heard one interlocutor remark that the problems with the way Indian students were treated and perceived in Australia in the last couple of years has put the Australia-India bilateral relationship back ten years.

There are many in New Zealand who look back wistfully on the days of the Colombo Plan, where students from developing countries in Asia were educated in New Zealand and then went on to become 'the great and the good' in their own countries. Much is made of largely intangible yet substantial benefits for New Zealand's foreign policy and 'brand' from the education of students of the Colombo Plan era.

This perception is largely accurate. Foreign policy isn't just made by officials and politicians; it is also informed by friends, foreign and domestic. People-to-people links, through diaspora communities or returned students, can oil the wheels of diplomacy and trade; or they can stop them turning altogether.

With New Zealand negotiating a free trade agreement with India, and a large New Zealand-born and migrant Indian community of its own, the best way to ensure the wheels keep turning would be for New Zealand to not follow Australia's lead but rather chart its own course: resource its education providers appropriately, ensure strong student support, and weed out the fly-by-night education providers who want to make a quick buck. All of that might set India-NZ relations on a good footing for the 21st century.

But if New Zealand only sees its relationship with India resting on common bonds like cricket and Ed Hillary, and doesn't treat its growing Indian student population with care, then all the good diplomatic work may be in vain. New Zealand may follow Australia after all and may need to spend years repairing what was a promising relationship. 

Photo by Flickr user will ockenden of Indian student protestors in Melbourne.

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