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Public lessons for private educators

The Government’s proposed legislation to monitor the performance of the Private Training Establishments (PTEs) was long overdue, for, all’s not well with the export education sector, which has its share of shoddy operators in recent years, bringing discredit to the country and its honest operators.

The Education Amendment Bill (No 4), which will be introduced to Parliament in the New Year, will hopefully achieve its aim of cleansing the sector of unhealthy practices, incompetent and dishonest providers and make the PTEs more transparent and accountable.

The need to regulate the export education sector, which accrues about $2 billion to the national economy annually, has been pronounced since long but the recent closure of a few institutions, leaving their students in the lurch, has exacerbated the problem, calling for urgent government action. Complaints of cutthroat competition, acts of impropriety and misuse of free market economy have been on the increase. There was therefore an urgent need to introduce new legislative measures that would discipline owners and operators of PTEs.

International students also need to be disciplined, obliged to follow the rules, and not get away with whatever they desired. There have been increasing instances of international students (a majority of them from India), abandoning their courses and seeking full-time employment. A number of students have also sought to move to other PTEs that offer cheaper courses.

The misuse has obviously hurt honest operators and the new law will end such gross misuse of the system. Empowering PTEs to retain a larger percentage of the fees while refunding international students who withdraw from a course of longer than three months or switch over to another institution will provide greater stability to the sector.

It is also perhaps time for concerted action by countries that are popular destinations for international student traffic. Universities and tertiary institutions in these countries are finding it hard to meet the booming demand for higher education. Wealthy families in fast-growing economies such as China and India can now afford to send their offspring to university but world-class institutions are too few.

This is big business for New Zealand. With attractive revenues, higher education is a significant industry. Foreign students have greater propensity to spend on accommodation, eating, drinking and entertainment.

Taking a big slug of students from other countries gives our universities and PTEs a more international flavour, enriching the mix and broadening the experience of domestic students in the process. That, at least, is the theory.

As the market for international education explodes in volume, it is in danger of seeing its market share slip. The US is a prime example.

Although America’s leading institutions have for long focused on enrolling bright students from abroad, most of its colleges have not; unsurprisingly, the country lost its market share in recent years. Its prominence has had much to do with the global dominance of its culture, the allure of its labour market and its lavish bursaries. But that is no longer enough. Many states now employ educational agents to lure foreign students their way. Even top universities are broadening their search.

New Zealand institutions should wake up to market realities, put their house in order and compete with the rest of the Western world (notably the US, UK and Australia) to increase its share of the export education market. And the new legislation should achieve its objectives.

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