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7 February 2017


Why we should not take our freedoms for granted

Continuing the strand of thought in my previous blog (to be found here) I would now like to reflect a little on my own life and how it unfolded since I left my home country to pursue an international career in education.  Especially in light of my early experiences in East Germany and my encounters with the people there, I have never taken the opportunity to travel and work abroad for granted.

One thing most of my schools, especially in Italy and the UK, had in common was an internationalism and a diversity that I had never encountered during my own school days.  The British boarding communities I lived and worked in comprised of up to 50 nationalities, students from Russia and China, Nigeria and Kazakhstan, Egypt and Ghana and a multitude of other countries, even including some Saudi Arabian princes.  It was fascinating to learn from each other and to watch people of all faiths and none live harmoniously together. 

The Swiss School Milan was a day school, but what an incredible mix of languages.  It was the only properly multi-lingual staff room I have ever experienced:  where it was the unwritten law in a staff meeting that everyone could speak the language they felt most comfortable in, be it German, Swiss German, Italian, English or French – and the expectation was that somehow you should be able to understand all of them. (My Swiss colleagues seemed to master it effortlessly).  What, at first, felt like a bewildering Tower of Babel soon became normality.  The students, mainly of Swiss or Italian origin, were bilingual at least and often trilingual.

Three of the schools I worked at were IB schools, and the International Baccalaureate is a qualification that has really impressed me ever since I first encountered it in Bedford – what an amazing and truly global education can be had by students at schools that properly implement its philosophy.  I have written about its merits several times, most recently from the point of view of an IB Examiner here.

In all these years, I applied for various jobs, filled in long application forms, was short-listed (or not), called for interview, assessed against criteria, chosen for the job (or not) and gradually gained experience at various levels of leadership.  Whether or not I was successful with my application:  there was one feeling that I never experienced.  I never felt discriminated against on the grounds of my nationality.  Not only was I made welcome and felt part of the team in every staff room I worked in, in every classroom I taught in, but during the various recruitment processes I invariably felt that I was treated fairly and just like every other applicant.  I always felt that the employer wanted the best person for the job, regardless of nationality or race.

With a successful career in the UK for 16 years and long before my relocation to Australia, I had stopped thinking of myself as ‘German’ (as in ‘foreign’).  I try to avoid the cliché of the ‘global citizen’, but I have certainly, for many years now, seen myself as a citizen of the world rather than a ‘national’ citizen.  Crossing over from Germany to Britain and vice versa has always been easy.  I never even contemplated applying for British citizenship because I was part of the European family with its free labour market.  Getting into Australia was a little more complicated, but still I felt that I was assessed on merit and that nobody was prejudiced against me.

The astonishing result of the Brexit vote, in conjunction with the political developments in other countries of the world, has changed that sense of freedom, that sense of liberating openness and empowering feeling that the world is my oyster.  Having to make a decision whether to try and stay in Australia or whether to return to the UK to pursue my career there, there are suddenly problems to overcome that I did not anticipate. 

While the newly elected president of the USA is trying to implement some of the populist measures he promised in his election campaign, such as building a wall or arbitrarily stopping innocent people from entering the country, the Australians are tightening their immigration rules and making work visas harder to obtain and easier to lose. 

An employee who, for whatever reasons, has left the employer who sponsored him to come out here will find it almost impossible to secure other employment, no matter how much he may have fallen in love with the country in the meantime, as the need to obtain the right to sponsor puts potential employers off.  The time frame to change employers has just been decreased from 90 to 60 days by the Australian government – a retrograde step in the words of University of Adelaide Senior Lecturer Joanna Howe who emphasised that this move increases the vulnerability of visa holders even further and gives them very little freedom of movement in the Australian labour market (The Australian, 16 November 2016). 

It is understandable that Australia is trying to protect their own work force, and it is also a well-known fact that some employers use the 457 sponsorship to obtain cheap labour from overseas, which is not in the spirit of that sponsor scheme.  It is good to try and stop the abuse of the system.

However, if the rule remains in place that Australian employers are only allowed to employ 457 visa holders if they have not been able to find an Australian capable of doing the job:  what impact will this have on diversity at the work place?  Is it not better to look at each candidate on merit and employ the best one for the job, especially for leadership positions, rather than thinking in narrow national categories? 


And is it morally justifiable to tie someone who has made the brave move to relocate from the other end of the world, with all the complex arrangements such a big move entails, to one particular employer, thus making their fate in this country entirely dependent on them?  The power and therefore moral responsibility it gives them is not the fault of individual employers; the flaw lies in the system.  The risks associated with being a 457 visa holder may put strong applicants off from giving up their safe job elsewhere and taking the plunge, and it would be sad if this resulted in a decrease in diversity and ultimately in splendid isolation or an insular mentality - an irony in a country with such an exciting mix of nationalities and cosmopolitan flair.

Such insular tendencies have certainly been revealed in the Brexit vote, and whilst the process itself is going to be a long and probably messy road, its consequences are already felt by many Europeans living and working in the UK - another country with a proud history of immigration and a multinational population.  I am being told that the atmosphere has changed significantly.  A French friend of mine who has been in the UK for close to 20 years is thinking of leaving because he doesn’t feel comfortable any more.  An Italian colleague who, like me, never felt ‘foreign’ or ‘different’ is now being asked regularly by her colleagues when she will be going back ‘to her own country’ and feels alienated.  A fellow German had her offer of a permanent position at a university revoked and was told that they wanted to wait how Brexit would affect her right to stay.  This has suddenly created a “them and us”-mentality that I have never encountered in the UK before – a country I have always known as refreshingly non-bureaucratic and hospitable.

The impact on education remains to be seen.  The current isolationist trends in the UK go against everything the IB stands for, and the IB is famously very strong in the UK, with more and more schools having signed up to offer it over the past years. Its world-class universities rely heavily on international scholars and students.  In Australia, too, the IB has risen in prominence, and its students would undoubtedly benefit from a greater diversity of those who teach it.  An international teaching body is highly appropriate in an IB school that has committed to the core principles of an international education.

The economic reasons behind the concerning rise of populist parties and individuals in so many countries of the world need to be analysed and addressed as a matter of urgency, and I do not feel qualified to do this.  I have simply observed the effect these tendencies have on my own career and that of others in a similar position.  What makes me sad  is that these days I sometimes catch myself thinking that I should maybe return to my own country because at least I have the right passport to be safe there - something I never thought before.  I love my home country but if I choose to return I would like to do so for the right reasons and not because I feel less welcome in other countries.

As I said at the end of the prequel to this blog: the world that seemed to open up in such a marvellously promising way in 1989 seems to be getting more fragmented again, with nations increasingly looking inward rather than outward and closing doors instead of opening them.  Recent political events have meant - to quote from memory an article I read in a UK newspaper last year - that those who used to flirt with xenophobia have been emboldened. 

It needs to be a task of everyone, especially those of us who work in education and whose job it is to form young and impressionable minds, to be alert to the dangers of the populist attitudes that are currently on the rise and to speak out against them.  The more countries teachers are allowed to access to do just that, the better. 

Education needs to remain international – now more so than ever.

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