Migrants: Money or multiculturalism, cash or culture, productivity or people?

I have been, and continue to be, troubled by how (im)migrants are portrayed by the media, and by extension, viewed by readers of media, and one could argue, on the basis of how society has made up its mind on the topic. To put it crudely, migrants are valued more for their economic contributions than the multiple cultures and histories they bring with them. All other nuances are lost in the need for quick conclusions in a busy and distracted world.

The economic migrant is a fairly recent construct, spurred by the bigger constructs of globalisation and international trade (see edited book by Trlin, Spoonley, and Bedford (2005) for articles on immigration policy in the 2000s). No doubt migrants and the receiving country are strongly attracted to each other on the potential and promise of financial reward. For migrants, however, the reward is not simply and purely economic. From my own experiences and insider observations, reward can be construed as short-term gains (better jobs, higher pay), longer-term returns (better opportunities for their children), and are often intermingled with other motivations ranging from lifestyle upgrades to escaping political uncertainty. (See Castelli (2008) for an insightful overview of different types of migrants.)

How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

For the receiving country, one could also argue that the reward is not simply and purely economic. Migrants contribute to the cultural diversity of the nation and enrich the social lives of locals and all residents in the country. The statement I’ve just made is unfortunately more rhetoric than real (something grandiose and admirable enough to be valid), a description, perhaps, of an ideal world that exists in policy and organisational statements signalling inclusion. How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

In the wake of post-covid rationalisation of immigration, the economic argument still holds strong, if not stronger than before. In a Newsroom article, Professor Steven Poelhekke re-hashes the classic argument for migrants in New Zealand – they do the jobs locals shun (while locals learn how to be more productive), and bring in innovation and patent worthy ideas. The article highlights two extreme values of immigration: low unskilled labour versus high-calibre talent – and appears to welcome them in equal measure.

Another article from the Financial Times reiterates the economic argument but favours one group over the other. It builds its case around Foriegn Minister Winston Peters’ claims that the pandemic has “exposed the problems of building an economy on consumption driven by immigration.” Peters is of the view that relying on high immigration rates to contribute to GDP is ‘unsustainable’ because of the pressure it places on infrastructure, health and education. Instead, New Zealand should focus on a select group of highly skilled immigrants essential to wealth creation.

Interestingly, the FT article contrasts Peters’ worldview with that of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, supposedly “a great advocate of a multicultural New Zealand” by demonstrating hospitality towards migrants. However, apart from the one mention of ‘multicultural’, nothing else is said about multiculturalism. Thus nothing much is known about so-called advocacy for multicultural New Zealand, if indeed there is a specific rationalisation of immigration on the basis of creating a multicultural nation. (Or if my suspicions are right, it’s just too tricky to define and measure.)

… the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

So putting the two articles side by side, immigration or migration, whether you stick strictly to the definitions of immigration as permanent, and migration as temporary or more mobile, the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

The case for multiculturalism, while elusive, is suggested in Professor Paul Spoonly’s article for HR practitioners titled ‘Why ethnicity diversity is essential in a post-Covid world’. Spoonley argues that there is an ongoing need for a migrant workforce by providing both economic and cultural perspectives on immigration, but highlights that the cultural perspective is of greater significance.

The economic case for migrants can be summed up as: migration numbers will go down and there is an understandable shift to up/re-skill local workers, but there will still be a need for migrant workers as we can’t fill the gap quickly and efficiently enough.

The cultural perspective that comes after, however, is not strictly a case for ‘multicultural’ New Zealand through immigration, but rather, alludes to the fact that immigration in the past has contributed to a multicultural New Zealand and therefore “ethnic diversity is a major consideration in terms of the current and future economy and labour force of this country.”

Unfortunately, the way ethnic diversity is framed is nebulous – as a ‘consideration’ to promote the ‘viability’ of businesses. What conclusion is one to draw from these words? Reading Spoonley’s argument more closely and inferring the ‘unspoken’, I conclude that companies should hire on the basis of ethnic diversity as opposed to hiring based on the predominant Euro/Anglo culture, and going beyond the existing ethnic diversity policies regarding Māori and Pacific employees. ‘Asian’ is mentioned once as a characteristic of diversity and so if one were to pick that up, that’s one specific group of people you should consider hiring. And the reason for choosing ‘ethnic diversity’? It makes better business sense!

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’.

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’. Migrants are good for the economy, whether high or low value migrants, and if migrants have made us more diverse, then we want to make sure we serve our migrant populations and earn their money.

I hope this provokes us into thinking more about (im)migration and (im)igrants; what the big nebulous words of ‘globalisation’, ‘ethnic diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ (to name a few) actually mean to us in our daily lives; and be challenged to think ‘multiculturally’ when it’s easier not to.

Language rights, agency, and cross-cultural understanding in international education


This post was originally written for Ipu Kererū Blog of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education on 4 March 2019. In light of the Christchurch tragedy that took place on 15 March 2019, I’m re-posting it on my own website with a renewed sense of urgency to champion linguistic and cultural diversity.


International Mother Language Day  has been observed on 21 February every year since its establishment by the United Nations in 2000.  In New Zealand, the day is recognised and celebrated by organisations such as The New Zealand Federation of Multicultural Councils and The Office of Ethnic Communities, as well as schools and universities. In countries with migrant populations, recognising people’s mother tongues or heritage languages upholds respect for linguistic and cultural diversity. According to the UN, International Mother Language Day aims to do just this – to “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

Understanding, tolerance and dialogue?

In contrast to the positive messages surrounding International Mother Language Day, the recent debacle at Duke University (North Carolina, USA) over Chinese international students speaking in their native language in the lounge area appears to contravene the very tenets of linguistic diversity. An assistant professor at Duke had emailed all first- and second-year biostatistics graduate students with a message directed at international (and, obviously, Chinese) students. An email excerpt quoted by several news reports reads:

“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building. I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost [sic] respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

The “unintended consequences” the assistant professor mentioned refer to students being disadvantaged during internship and employment opportunities because of the their apparent lack of interest to improve their English. Another possible consequence was that not conversing in a language that others could understand would be considered “impolite”.

A swift apology came from the dean to rectify the matter:

“To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.”

The Duke Asian Students Association and the Duke International Association have condemned the discrimination against Chinese students, while external commentators have highlighted how the Duke incident is symptomatic of wider tensions in US academe with regard to international students. Their responses highlight xenophobic sentiments among faculty staff and the institution at large despite the goals of inclusivity and cross-cultural understanding of global higher education. Another point raised is that international students, as with all other students, have personal rights to communicate in the languages of their choice. Furthermore, speaking in one’s native tongue does not indicate a deficiency in English language abilities.

The value of native language use in tertiary settings

My doctoral research on international students’ brokering practices has demonstrated that using one’s native language can be tremendously helpful for succeeding academically. First-year Chinese university students’ help-seeking interactions with peers often utilised Mandarin Chinese, a language they had in common with their academic brokers. Within a shared linguistic and cultural communicative framework, students were empowered to ask a range of questions about assignments, test their assumptions, and occasionally display their epistemic authority. In other words, using one’s native language facilitated learner agency in ways that formal English-medium instruction could not.

The analytical insights on my participants’ brokering interactions were further enhanced by my own bilingual capabilities in English and Chinese. I was consciously engaged in acts of translation between raw data and analysis, but also between my participants’ informal learning experiences in Chinese, and my largely English monolingual readership. In this small way, I, too, wish to “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue” about international students in English-dominant universities such as Duke.

Priorities and responsibilities

With international education becoming an increasingly valuable export sector in New Zealand, it’s easy to see international students as cash cows rather than celebrating the linguistic and cultural diversity they represent. If international education is to fulfil the broader aims of global citizenship (as laid out in the NZ government’s long-term international education strategy), there needs to be a two-way street where local staff and students learn from international students as much as international students learn from them. Thus cross-cultural competency training is an urgent need, and so is a re-imagined curriculum that pays more than lip-service to the terms ‘international’ and ‘diversity’. To this end, may I invite multilingual educators and researchers to consider how you can play an important role in bridging cultural worlds.

The original blog post was re-posted with permission and can be found here.

The ethical challenges of global connectivity – A response to Fazal Rizvi

A personal response to the opening keynote by Fazal Rizvi – ‘Global connectivity and its ethical challenges in education’ at the 29th ISANA International Education Association Conference, 5 December 2018, Sydney Masonic Centre, NSW, Australia.

Professor Fazal Rizvi, a name synonymous with ‘cosmopolitan identities’ in international education (see his 2005 paper), presented to international education practitioners, a dilemma in our contemporary times. International education, a notion that implies openness, cooperation, and collaboration, operates in a world that is moving towards ethno-nationalist sentiments.

US President Donal Trump encapsulates such sentiments with his calls for US protectionism, and so do the political landscapes in other countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, France, and India. Even while the world is becoming ever more connected, anti-globalisation is gaining traction, revealing the tensions and limitations of so-called ‘global connectivity’. There is a deep-seated fear of the potential loss of national sovereignty in the face of job loss and migrant communities encroaching on the spaces of local populations. On the other hand, globalisation offers little tangible benefit for the every(wo)man, and can be argued to favour the transnational elite, i.e., those who have the resources to engage in, and reap the rewards of, global mobility. Viewed as such, globalisation is, in fact, anti-democratic.

Rizvi invites us to understand the concerns of those against globalisation, and question if the assumptions and charges are valid, and how such perspectives can be harmful and unproductive. He also considers the question if there is really a fundamental binary between globalisation and nationalism. Specifically for international education practitioners, how do we get our students to respond to these competing claims of internationalisation and patriotism. Do these go together in parallel, in dialectical fashion, or can they only exist in conflict?

Rizvi also reminds us that nationalist sentiments are driven by both facts and emotion, and so it is important to address both the politics of global connectivity and affect. International education posits a global village of sorts, but the world as a whole is not a community in any real or concrete sense. He stresses that people are inherently social beings who wish to belong to a tangible and concrete community, and such desires undermine the abstract notions of globalisation.

Rizvi points out some facts of global connectivity:

  • Our economy has become dependant on global mobility as in tourism, trade, migration, and education.
  • Growing levels of intercultural exchange are seen in service economics.
  • Different cultures rub up against one another; ‘cosmopolitan’ cities become so because of tourists and international students.
  • Even if government policies appear to curb mobility, migrant populations will continue to increase as a result of complex individual choices.

The overriding sentiment towards these facts, however, is one of resentment. If globalisation used to represent some universal moral truth, then it is now up against those who demand specificity in their own moral truths (plural). While Rizvi proposed the concept of cosmopolitan thinking more than 10 years ago, he now recognises the need for new theories. He argues that cosmopolitanism and the associated images of corporations must be resisted as a universal value, but adopted as a way of engaging with everyday issues and conflicts.

Rizvi looks to education as the hope for such cosmopolitan thinking, in view of the failures of media which have become increasingly fractured, and of religion which appears to divide rather than bring people together. Education, and in particular, public education, has a crucial role to play in teaching people how to engage in ethical learning.

He puts forth the need for engaging in cosmopolitan thinking which views social identities as dynamic, and forces us to consider how we can live across differences. Students need to be taught how to be reflexive, that is, to be critically self-referential. We ask questions about why and how we do things, and learn how to work through contradictions. And before we can ask of our students to do so, we ourselves, need to be ethically reflexive practitioners in international education.

What I have summarised above is Rizvi’s call to arms for international education practitioners to recognise the competing forces of globalisation and protectionism, and to actively – reflexively – work against unproductive outcomes. Both intellectually and in practice, I am inspired to take up an ethical response to the current state of affairs. But before I can take on the giants of globalisation and protectionism, I want to respond to a nagging and troubling aspect of international education that is seldom discussed. My troubling thought can be summed up quasi-rhetorically – What is international about international education?

To paraphrase Betty Leask (2009), the presence of international students alone does not internationalise education, or foster intercultural interactions and understanding. To push the point further, using the term ‘international’ or ‘internationalise’ has the grammatical effect of modifying the nature of the noun that follows, but the meaning and significance of ‘international’ is lost in the everyday concerns, both petty and grand, of those who fall under the purview of ‘international education’. The overriding concern for education providers and student consumers alike is ‘return on investment’ (see Altbach & Knight, 2007).

As part of the system of global connectivity, international education is far more valued as a commodity than an opportunity for engaging meaningfully with cultural and social differences. In other words, international education itself is implicated in the unproductive forces of globalisation. Spending three days at the 2018 ISANA conference in Sydney , I observed well-meaning practitioners showcasing ‘best practices’ of meeting the linguistic and cultural needs and demands of students, but rarely highlighting any challenges related to interactions between international students and the host community. Walking around downtown Sydney, one of the leading Australian cities for international students, I saw rows and rows of East Asian shops (food, services, goods) patronised predominantly by East Asians, suggesting to me that at least this group of international students (who form the majority) can remain comfortably in their familiar spaces, without having to entertain the possibility of intercultural engagement.

I have only painted a broad stroke of what can be considered un-international in international education. Addressing learning and living needs, and helping international students adapt to new surroundings, are important responsibilities to be fulfilled by education providers. Often, national grouping of students are helpful (at least initially) to reduce the sense of isolation, and facilitate more efficient communication. However, beyond providing services and opening up ethnic-friendly spaces, there is also a need to proactively bring together different nationalities, including that of the host nation, to engage in conversation, let alone debate, about being ‘international’ and engaging in ‘post-cosmopolitan thinking’. Where there are international gatherings, at least in my own international student experience, they very rarely go beyond differences safe enough to chat over pizza and juice.

There seems to be an ongoing inertia or reluctance to challenge commonly held narratives of internationals (a common nominalisation for international students which is ironically divisive) who haven’t got enough English to save themselves, and need rescuing from their own deficits. My own research has attempted to thwart the deficit narratives by examining how co-ethnic/national interactions enhance informal academic learning through ‘peer brokers’ who are able to translate and interpret the Western/English demands of university curriculum in linguistically and culturally responsive ways. Through such brokering practices, students experience agency in their academic pursuits.

While one of my conclusions is to encourage sociolinguistically compatible interactions for enhancing student agency, another important implication of my research is the role of brokers who straddle two different cultural worlds. How might such individuals be viewed or view themselves as the missing link in intercultural engagement and difficult conversations about living ‘internationally’? Perhaps brokers who can switch between worldviews are potential bridge builders between the ‘internationals’ and ‘others’ / ‘sojourners’ and ‘hosts’, and eventually lead to alternative vocabulary we can use to describe those in and around international education.

If I were to take on that kind of a brokering role, I would start with difficult conversations. To consider how international education can rise up to the challenges globalisation and protectionism, we must firstly reckon with the ironies of, and tensions in, the global industry international education has become. We have to re-consider how ‘English language’ and ‘Western thought’ are both selling points and selling out in becoming global. And this is just the beginning of my ethical response.

International Education – Global Currency or Global Citizenship

Presentation at the Global Knowledge Economy Seminar organised by the Postgraduate Students’ Association held at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, on 15 October 2018

My topic today was New Zealand’s fourth largest export industry in 2016, then valued at more than $4 billion dollars, and supported more than 30 thousand jobs across the country. International education is big business for New Zealand, as it is for the traditional players – the English-speaking nations of the US, Canada, UK, and Australia.

The recent International Education Strategy released by the Ministry of Education has declared is aspirations for international education to be the vehicle for global citizenship. But I do wonder whether the forces of global currency overwhelm such lofty, but certainly important goals.

First, let’s think about why international students come to New Zealand. While the perceived high quality of educational offerings is one factor, research suggests that the stronger factors are:

  1. that New Zealand is overall a more affordable destination, and
  2. New Zealand’s reputation as clean, green, and safe.

Next, let’s consider what international education contributes to New Zealand. As I mentioned earlier, international education is an export sector, meaning, education is treated as a form of goods and services.

Looking at the 2016 stats, there were about 130 thousand international students enrolled in schools, language centres, private institutions, the polytechnics, and universities.

Half of the international students hail from China and India, both emerging middle-income countries and engines of global growth.

Universities take the largest share, hosting a fifth of the international student population, and receiving almost 40% of the tuition income.

This thin slice of statistics reflects what keeps the sector humming along. The sellers – educational institutions – desire income and profit, and the buyers – Asian students – want decent qualifications from an English-speaking country.


You might think that I’ve painted a rather crude picture of international education, but I’ve yet to meet someone who has attributed the $4 billion dollar figure to the desire for world peace.

But even if world peace is not at the forefront or the producers and consumers’ minds, it doesn’t mean that international education is only worth in terms of dollars and cents. It is, after all, not a sector that deals with milk powder or premium beef, but a sector that is capable of transforming lives of all students, the educators, and the community.

The University of Waikato, for example, hosts many nationalities among its students. As an international student myself, I feel privileged to be able to interact with my peers from Vietnam, India, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Vanuatu , Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Timor Leste. I enjoy learning about their different histories and social customs.

I am beginning to build a global network of friends and colleagues. And while I cannot promise there will be world peace, I can say that I have grown to be more sensitive and appreciative of the different, and at times, conflicting, geopolitics across the world stage. In other words, I am learning how to be a global citizen. I’m not sure whether my Kiwi peers have the same experience, or feel the same way. But the research suggests that they are probably ambivalent or indifferent.

Perhaps Prime Minister Jacinda Arden could offer all of us some inspiration to become more globally minded and action-oriented. In her speech to the United Nations General Assembly, she said, and I quote:

“Given the challenges we face today, and how truly global they are in their nature and impact, the need for collective action and multilateralism has never been clearer.”

PM Arden was talking about climate change. I think the same applies to international education.

The value of international education must not remain solely at the level of trade. It has the enormous potential to build bridges across cultural and political divides. My conclusion is for you to take the first step in making it happen.

The Power of Peer Support

Peer support for doctoral students meets emotional and cultural needs outside power relations imposed by institutional structures and authority figures.

I was recently invited to contribute a blog post to the Trust Me! blog, an amazing resource for research supervisor development, helmed by Dr Kay Guccione, Chair of the University of Sheffield Mentoring Network. My post is based on a recent article I wrote about how peer support and student advocacy are important resources for supporting international (indeed, all) doctoral students. The original post is re-produced here with kind permission from Kay Guccione.

[Journal article ref: Lee, S. (2017). Peer Support for International Doctoral Students in Managing Supervision Relationships. Journal of International Students, 7(4), 1096–1103. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1035971]

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I write from the perspective of a former postgraduate student leader (peer-mentoring others) and an international doctoral student. Based on my personal doctoral experiences, and interactions with fellow doctoral students, I share how peer support addresses supervision-related issues that are not easily met by administrative processes or supervisors themselves.

In the New Zealand context, the early period of one’s PhD candidature is ‘conditional’ and the candidate has to prepare a research proposal (or report), and a research ethics application if applicable, to be approved by the end of 6 months (extendable to 9 months). Thus, the most important milestone of a first-year PhD student was reaching ‘confirmed enrolment’. The stress of not seeming to make progress in meeting that milestone is compounded for international students who face family, societal, and/or financial pressure to succeed.

The stress of possible failure, as I have experienced for myself, comes about from supervision practices that do not provide encouragement to the developing researcher, and/or clear guidance for the documentation required for confirmation. Students who are new to the country and the institutional culture may be trying to make sense of their supervisors’ communication style and unspoken expectations. One may be trying very hard to read between the lines, while respecting the supervisors’ authority, and at the same time, wondering how far, and how best to assert one’s autonomy and epistemological perspective. Such negotiations may even continue past the confirmed enrolment stage and into the unfolding doctoral journey.

Across self-help guides and well-meaning (or maybe just mean) advice, such worries are often dismissed as ‘normal’ or somewhat needing to be better managed by the student. Rare is the response that asks supervisors to take greater responsibility in engaging with their students, especially those who are negotiating with intersecting demands of cultural ‘adaptation’, scholarly independence, and personal pressures of dealing with failure (however defined by the individual).

In my role as a postgraduate student representative at the university, I regularly engaged with international doctoral students. After I stepped down from the leadership position, I continued to mentor peers as and when the need arose. Having gone through a fairly rough first year, but coming out stronger at the end of it, provided me the insight to assist my peers in making sense of their experiences. I had also personally been on the receiving end of constructive advice from a more experienced peer. Had it not been for her regular following up on my situation, I might not have taken action to address my own well-being as a doctoral student.

In my conversations with fellow doctoral students, the issues they raised was more often than not related to the supervision relationship or supervision/communication practices. I usually respond by pointing out the various institutional structures that provide support for doctoral students. While many students had some idea of the hierarchy and reporting lines, few were prepared to use official routes of seeking redress. The suspicion of the efficacy of bureaucratic intervention was one reason; not wishing to expend additional emotional and mental energy was another; avoiding the embarrassment and shame of being exposed was also a likely reason if admitted. We would then discuss communication strategies, talk through possible outcomes, and debate on what a best case scenario would look like. Sometimes they concluded that institutional intervention was necessary. At other times, they chose to ‘wait and see’. It was also useful for us to rehearse what they wished to say to supervisors or other authority figures. Our conversations, done in private, did not promise to make things perfect. If anything, it reinforced the reality of imperfect but negotiable supervision experiences.

The doctoral journey is notorious for being isolating and emotionally draining. Institutions, especially at the faculty level, need to make concerted efforts to encourage peer interactions and peer mentorship so PhD students have opportunities to consult, debate and consider possibilities regarding supervision issues in a safe and supportive environment. As an international doctoral student, I have experienced and observed the benefits of peer support, especially when institutional structures and authority figures are not able to satisfactorily meet emotional and cultural needs.

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