Naomi Stead portrait

Education and migration

Mar 17, 2009
  • Article by Naomi Stead
  • Designer

On June 16 of 2007, a seminar on the theme of Import/Export was held at UTS. I was pleased to receive an invitation to take part even though, as a scholar and critic teaching in the field of architectural history and theory, I wasn’t exactly sure what I could offer to such a debate. But then I began to consider the true practice of an academic these days. If, as we are often told, our work needs to be understood and accounted for in quantifiable terms, then one of the things that the contemporary academic ‘produces’ is graduates. In the current jargon, we also ‘produce’ research, new knowledge, impact, and contributions to architectural culture. But let’s say that one of the principle things that we academics ‘work upon’ is the production of creative, skilled, knowledgeable, competent and ethical graduates. The thing that becomes interesting here then, is how many of these graduates are destined for an export market.

A high proportion of those hundreds and thousands of students who we teach, who are for a period internal to the Australian education system, are destined to become ‘external’ themselves – to be exported to practice elsewhere. The ‘recent boom in Australian architectural export’, which Andrew Mackenzie has noted, is paralleled by an equally significant boom in the industry of education. It is a truism that the income generated by fee-paying international students is one of the crucial pontoons that keeps the Australian public university system afloat. Add to this the mobility of local students, and the system of architectural education comes to seem like a key player in the import and export of architectural ideas.

My experience of academic practice overseas has most often been as a guest lecturer or juror in European architecture schools (leaving aside conference presentations, since they tend to be highly international affairs standing outside a system of import and export). But my observations and conclusions from that experience are strangely predictable, and fall into two categories. First is the mild curiosity that seems to be engendered in students by the idea of an Australian academic, a curiosity that quickly fades when I prove to be a disappointingly un-exotic specimen. Second is the kind of things that these students want to hear about – namely buildings and landscapes and ideas that depart from what they see every day – something specific and indigenous to Australia, and therefore distinctively different from European models. One might say that the ‘tradeable service’ that I might offer as a guest lecturer – aside from the expected things such as professional expertise – is difference, novelty and something like a simple orientalism.

But the effect of Australian academics teaching large numbers, if not whole generations, of students from, say, India or China, is a different matter. I would say that this export of knowledge, techniques and worldviews is a highly significant practice in world architectural terms, and one that has perhaps not yet been fully examined.

It seems to me that, while there have been adjustments in content to reflect a more diverse student body, the philosophy in Australian schools has generally been ‘we’re doing it anyway and you’re welcome to join in’. In my experience there has not been a comprehensive re-writing of curricula to specifically address the teaching of international students, with all of its broader social, cultural and architectural implications for their home country. To turn the equation on its head for a moment, if it was a large proportion of Australian students who were sent overseas for the bulk of their education, I would be watching the local implications of this very closely, and with some concern.

And what exactly are international students seeking when they come here? Clearly, it is not simply an education – for some it is the cachet of having a degree from a Western university, for others it is improved skills in English, for others still it is the opportunity to spend time in a sunny place with great beaches and interesting wildlife. When these students head off home, or on to their next destination, they are carrying a cargo of social capital, along with what we might hope are finely tuned critical skills in postcolonial modes of thought. But what other unanticipated or unexamined things, desirable or undesirable, are they carrying forth and disseminating across the world? And what does it really mean to teach a student who comes from another place, and who intends to go back there? After all, we are not talking about the odd adventurous individual here. This is wholesale, industrialised education. Are we teaching them an Australian way of thinking and designing? Or is it universal? These ideas, just as much as the notion that we could import or export some particular quality of architectural practice, should cause us to pause for consideration.

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