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Universities Need Funds for International Postgrads

Education

While good intentions are behind codes of practice for pastoral care for tertiary and international students, they mean little if the Government can’t provide funding to put it into practice, argues Kalika Kastein

As international postgraduate students, it is hard to sum up the range of emotions that have swept our diverse community since Aotearoa’s border closures and lockdowns began in 2020.

Many of us have strived to support each other: as loved ones like spouses and children have been separated from us, as we have dealt with death in our families back home while we are abroad, as tensions or conflict have brewed back at home, or as we have taken on familial financial burdens considering global economic downturns, and more.

Reporting from RNZ has highlighted how international postgraduate researchers are a critical part of the research community in Aotearoa. Still, the number of these postgraduates have dropped significantly due to border restrictions. Some of us question our ability to live here with relative safety, health, and security. While many of us have felt we cannot and should not complain, especially as our families back home remind us that we are safer here in Aotearoa, the truth is that we are often not adequately supported.

Pastoral care

As part of addressing this, the Government holds tertiary providers to a code of practice on pastoral care for tertiary and international students. The code is tied to the Ministry of Education’s international student wellbeing strategy, created in consultation with the international student community and it links to economic wellbeing, education, health, and inclusion. A new version of the code, released in July, is meant to take effect on January 1 2022, with the first year being a pilot.

The trouble is, many education providers are making difficult decisions about where to invest their time and resources in the current financial environment. Pastoral care requirements need to be more than just good intentions. Schools must have the resources to implement pastoral care requirements meaningfully.

The Government ought to provide more resources if universities are to rise to the standards outlined in the code, since ambitious items like student-centred education and spaces will require further consultation and funding.

Another issue is: tertiary students are responsible for reporting violations of the code of practice. However, while a domestic student may face some obstacles to reporting, international tertiary researchers can have compounding factors that contribute to their reluctance to speak up on violations.

For instance, international students may worry that reporting may impact their standing at university and, therefore, visa status, which hinges on their university enrolment. Some may question whether they should report, writing off a systemic issue as simply a cultural norm here in Aotearoa.

Those with limited power shouldn’t be primary reporters of brokenness in our systems. We need the Government to step in to fund accountability with this code of practice through an external body or ombudsman.

Budget cuts

Pastoral care aside, universities are cutting back on costs, which in turn impacts students. Much of this is framed in the light of falling enrolments due to border closures. Indeed, enrolment of international students in January 2021 was at half the normal numbers, according to RNZ.

Many postgraduate students pay for their schooling or other costs through tutoring in the university. But this tutoring has seen significant cuts, as reported by RNZ, resulting in fewer jobs to go around and higher workloads (and thus stress) for those who do get tutoring positions.

Without additional financial support, when universities cut back, it can trickle down and end up passing on some of this economic burden to postgraduates. Budgetary cuts of postgraduate jobs result in a postgraduate workforce suffering from burnout, stress, financial pressures, and anxiety. These cuts only further intensify an already worrisome situation.

Although many international postgraduates hope an open border may solve some of their issues, the funding cuts are not just one-off events. Cuts have long term consequences and impact postgraduates’ economic wellbeing, education, and health – all areas outlined in the code of practice.

There is concern about the impact of potential cuts to scholarship funding for those studying on a scholarship. Postgraduate scholarships are often given at rates that now track well below the minimum wage and have not been adjusted for inflation, or the rising costs of living or accommodation.

Postgraduates may work multiple jobs in addition to their research work to make ends meet or struggle to afford suitable housing. These financial strains may make it more difficult for basic postgraduate needs to be met, as outlined in the code of practice’s goals around economic wellbeing and health. Further complicating finances, many international tertiary postgrads often support families in Aotearoa, or abroad through remittances and so have additional strains and financial stressors.

Conclusion

Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is becoming increasingly financially difficult for universities to uphold the spirit of this code of practice for pastoral care. Budget cuts at the university level impact international postgrads’ financial situations and become compounded with wellbeing concerns. An increase in government funds to universities could help alleviate some of the financial stress that has led to these cutbacks.

The Government needs to recognise its role in supporting public institutions, like universities. It must work with universities to ensure there are supportive codes in place, the funds and resources allocated to see them come to life, and proper channels to oversee when they are not.

In these challenging times, more than ever, quality pastoral care is needed to address economic wellbeing, education, health, and inclusion. Good intentions will come to nothing if the Government doesn’t put its money where its mouth is.



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