International education: the motivation to keep going

“I’ve yet to see a more challenging time for the sector than now”

My international education began aged 19, writes the the director of the British Council in Malaysia Jazreel Goh. I was whisked 6,000 km from the comfort of home in Malaysia to Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia.

Back then, I never imagined I was part of an industry or that I contributed to Australian exports. It didn’t strike me that transferring a student from one country to another could be a business model. Thirty years later, here I am, immersed in what others describe as the big business of international education.

International education is a major export for many countries and a prime funding stream for universities. Today, the industry is worth over USD300 billion. Its machinery is sophisticated, with specialist organisations and jobs created for it and with vast sums of money flowing around the world.

Areas of expertise flourish around it: education agents, careers, travel and financial services, guardianship, accommodation, language training and testing, transnational education, partnerships and more. The industry has expanded rapidly, with nothing seeming to hit it too hard, be it geopolitical and demographic shifts, economic crises, man-made disasters, SARS or MERS. Young people who believe that study abroad will transform their lives have been largely undeterred.

But 2020 and the unforeseen impact of Covid-19 risks bursting an already fragile global economic bubble – not to mention increased tensions between nations and challenges to the rules-based international order.

I’ve yet to see a more challenging time for the sector than now. With a cloudy crystal ball, and no blueprint for a roadmap against the backdrop of global pandemic, where is this industry heading? What roles will we play? What will spur us on?

Covid-19 will no doubt be the catalyst for changes to behaviour and practice in the international education industry. Policies will soon be in place to optimise any opportunities. Blended learning, on-demand lectures and tutorials, AI lecturers and virtual reality labs may become the new normal in the next chapter of global mainstream education.

This global flux demands that professional education communities collaborate more intensively to equip young people to handle a future where humanity, building trust and inter-cultural understanding are at an even greater premium.

International education is fundamentally about lifelong engagement with international students, enabling them to gain and share knowledge, debate perspectives, to understand and appreciate difference. Every individual international student strengthens the basis for engagement between countries, a connection that can last for decades after they’ve graduated.

We cannot simply measure our international outputs by numbers of graduates projected into the global economy, science targets or balance sheets. Instead, we should take pride in and cherish the value of preparing young people to have ambition, good leadership and, above all, humanity.

Business it may be, a generator of cash and an employer, but in an era of escalating tensions, the bottom line for international education has to be its contribution to global civil society. This is central to the British Council’s education mission, to build mutual understanding, respect and people-to-people connections globally.

Our work in international education must continue to broaden horizons, inspire innovation, enable culture, rationality and creativity to thrive, to nurture human relations and encourage the sharing of global perspectives Through this, we’ll enable deeper and ultimately more productive interactions between human beings.

It’s what keeps me motivated thirty years on.

About the author: Jazreel Goh joined British Council China in June 2004, where she led on the UK’s largest education marketing and partnership initiatives. She  then set up the British Council’s first ever e-marketing platform dedicated to education intelligence in 2011 and recently moved to take up post as Director British Council Malaysia.