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Academic migrants in New Zealand universities

Academic migrants in New Zealand universities

New Zealand universities have some of the highest rates of foreign academics in the world. This previously unexplored issue is the subject of the inaugural professorial lecture of Victoria University Professor of Anthropology Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich on Tuesday 7 April.

Professor Bönisch-Brednich, who is originally from Germany, says many migrant academics arrive in New Zealand expecting the university culture to be the same as in their home country—yet they are often startled by the differences.

“In structural terms it looks very similar, but university life is embedded in local culture and national identity. This is often misunderstood by people and interpreted as a personal problem, rather than a cultural problem.”

She says academic migrants are a considerable but seldom reflected upon part of New Zealand university life—and this lack of attention has negative effects.

“There is not enough help with this problem, which in real terms is about maintaining staff. You need a plan of action in place to explain cultural differences to new migrants so they can feel comfortable and not alienated.”

Academic migrants make up 46 percent of Victoria University of Wellington academic staff.

Professor Bönisch-Brednich, who interviewed a range of migrant academics around the country, says many are startled by the informality and egalitarianism of New Zealand culture, in particular the tendency to refer to people by their first names.

“In Germany, for example, you would be referred to as ‘Professor’, or by your family name, so the relationship is so clear and demarcated. Things are done very differently in New Zealand—it works, but it can be very unsettling for academic migrants who are used to a very hierarchical university culture.”

She says another problem for recently arrived academics is the New Zealand penchant for downplaying academic achievement.

“There is a lack of celebrating success which seems to be related to the egalitarianism. There is also unease that senior academics are not as well used as in other countries. You are astonished that you don’t get consulted or invited to participate in society as an expert. Professors are very rarely asked to write an editorial in a New Zealand newspaper for example.”

Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh says Professor Bönisch-Brednich is researcher and teacher who has contributed invaluable insight into the study of New Zealand culture.

Professor Walsh says Victoria’s Inaugural Lecture series is an opportunity for new professors to provide family, friends, colleagues and the wider community with an insight to their specialist area of study.

“It is also an opportunity for the University to celebrate and acknowledge our valued professors.”

The public lecture is at 6pm in the Hunter Council Chamber, on Kelburn Parade on Tuesday 7 April 2009. To RSVP, please email with ‘Bönisch-Brednich’ in the subject line.



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