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A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

Towards a global protocol for mobile students

Lessons from the Australian experience of international education

Simon Marginson

University of Melbourne

In the last 20 years the number of international students in Australian higher education grew by the remarkable average of more than 12 per cent per year, before the sharp fall in numbers that has now begun.

Between 1990 and 2007 the number of international students in higher education rose from 25,000 to 254,414, one in five of all onshore university students: 80 per cent of these international students were from Asian nations. The total national export of higher education, vocational education, schooling and English-language courses was A$18 billion in 2009. Education was Australia’s largest services export and fourth-largest export overall after coal, iron ore and gold, ahead of tourism and all specific sectors in agriculture and manufacturing. In 2008 Australia was the world’s fifth-largest exporter of tertiary education, with 6.9 per cent of all foreign students. In higher education in Australia in 2008, a dozen institutions enrolled more than 8000 international students, led by RMIT University with 22,497 and Monash with 19,079; total national tuition revenues in higher education were A$2.6 billion, 14.9 per cent of university income (ABS 2010; DEEWR 2010; OECD 2010). In future years we will look back and say that the last three years were the high point, when we could glimpse the infinite: it seemed that international student numbers would go on expanding forever, to half or more of the student body, the demography of urban Asia recast in miniature on the far side of the world.

This long growth, which fluctuated but always stayed positive – lasting right through all the many changes in the Australian dollar, the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the first stage of the 2008–10 global financial crisis, was primarily supply regulated. As the size of the Asian middle classes expanded, especially in China, the number of applications to study in Australia also grew and stayed ahead of the supply of places. The number of enrolled students was determined by the willingness of universities to take them and by the willingness of the federal Immigration Department, now DIAC (Department of Immigration and Citizenship), to grant visas. Most of the time DIAC was supportive of the export industry and positive about the throughput of graduates into skilled migration. For their part Australian universities needed the money, badly. That need increased over the years. Growth was sustained by successive cutbacks in the public funding of higher education, notably a 12 to 15 per cent fall in per-student funding in 1988–89 at the beginning of the commercial market (Burke 1988) and the Vanstone cuts of 1996, which triggered accelerated growth in international students. Between 1995 and 2002 Australian private spending on tertiary education increased by 78 per cent, while public spending fell by eight per cent. The OECD noted in 2005 that in most countries ‘increasing private spending on tertiary education tends to complement, rather than replace, public investment’ (OECD 2005, 175, 187, 193) – but Australia was the exception. The Labor Party made much of this point in the lead-up to the 2007 election. Labor in government has now discarded the international comparison on public funding, in case it is used to make claims for budgetary action!

The growth tendency shuddered to a halt in 2009, though this will not fully show itself in universities until 2011and 2012. There was a reduction in demand in South Asia following the patterned violence against South Asian students in Melbourne in 2008–10 (Marginson 2010a), media coverage of this in India and the desultory response of the Australian authorities. But, despite the dip in South Asian demand, the change was again primarily driven on the supply side. Education institutions continued to be dependent on growth in international student numbers and still held the door wide open. The change in supply resulted from a dramatic shift in immigration policy.

This was triggered by two factors, only one of which was acknowledged. The acknowledged factor was migration scams and a blowout of migration-oriented international students in selected vocational programs. The unacknowledged factor, visible in the 2010 election campaign, was migration resistance in the Australian population, as indicated by opinion polls and also by the violence against South Asian students. Together these factors led to restrictions on both temporary student migration and the passage of graduates into permanent migration. Student visas are now harder to obtain – there are steep income tests1 and processing delays, so that gaining an Australian student visa from China (the largest student source country) or India is slower than in the case of competitor English-speaking countries such as the United States and Canada. Graduates who want to become permanent residents in Australia face a mix of English language and work experience tests. The requirement that international graduates work in an occupation for which they have been trained is difficult to meet. Labour markets are never closely matched to the qualifications profile – across the world roughly half of all graduates work outside their fields of training – and internationals face additional barriers (Marginson et al. 2010, chapter 6). Employers are reluctant to hire persons without migration status. Catch 22. Isn’t regulation wonderful!

The Federal Government explained these changes by stating that the clean up of the vocational sector would improve ‘quality’, and the new visa rules would decouple demand for Australian education from demand for migration. But the education and migration motivations are inseparable – individual students move freely between one and the other and many have both goals at various times – and the October 2010 statement by the federal minister in fact claims migration outcomes as one benefit of the international education program (Evans 2010)! As for ‘quality’, this is not guaranteed by tightening the regulation of marginal colleges, but by resources and incentives in the mainstream of institutions. But in those institutions, quality continues a long, slow decline. This is the inevitable outcome of the evacuation of core public funding and the forced substitution of private revenues in place of public income, with a large proportion of those private revenues in fact steered away from teaching and research capacity and absorbed by business costs. One assumes that by ‘quality’ the minister actually meant ‘reputation’. If so, the changes in regulation will have little impact on the main factors that will shape the reputation of the industry in the next period: the sudden end to the miracle of accelerated growth and the fall in Australia’s share of global student flows.

Total international numbers in Vocational Education and Training (VET) are already down. There has been a catastrophic decline in students from India, the largest source country for Australian VET in 2009 (AEI 2010) and Nepal. In higher education commencements fell by six per cent in the second half of 2010, compared with the same period in 2009. Universities highly dependent on India as a source country face serious problems. Numbers from China are also expected to decline because of the changes in visa regulation (Hare 2010). Because of pipeline effects the full damage will not show until 2012.

The tide is going out. The change is now unstoppable, even if correctives are factored into policy tomorrow. Around the world international student numbers are growing. But numbers coming to Australia are falling. Students who once would have gone to Australia are heading elsewhere. While the position is affected by a high-value dollar, there is no doubt the change is primarily due to supply-side factors and that the changes to migration policy and regulation are central. Given the change, it is a good time to review the character, dynamics and effects of international education in Australia. And there may be larger lessons in this for South Africa and other nations that export education and engage with large numbers of international students.

Australian international education illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of a commercial approach to higher education. It has also been shaped by Australia’s global position and positioning strategy. International education has generated great wealth in the export nation. It has also brought significant social and cultural benefits to Australia, which have been incidental to the financial objectives of the program but are nonetheless real and important. The horizons of Australian institutions, staff, students and local communities have been enlarged by the considerable numbers of international students living and studying in the major cities. As noted, four-fifths of these students are from Asia. Most of them are non-white and most of them are from countries where English is not the principal language. Many are also from non-Christian backgrounds. Australian society is geographically isolated, an English language monoculture, Anglo-American in temper and at times complacent and conservative. International education has brought the world to Australia, and has helped internationalise the nation’s higher education system, at least to some extent.

Five key tensions in international education in Australia

But despite the obvious successes of the program – both intended and unintended – it has been limited by tensions that have inhibited its evolution to a higher level, and that if uncorrected will weaken its sustainability in the longer term. In this chapter I identify five key tensions in international education in Australia, examining each in turn, working from the parochial national policy dimension to global relationships. The tensions are:

  • within national government, between immigration policy and education export policy
  • within Australian higher education, between the education export policy and the education and research missions of universities
  • in the global engagement of higher education institutions, between commercial exploitation and global knowledge flows
  • for international students, between economic consumption and their own human rights and security
  • the ongoing contradiction between national political economy and the global public good – the ‘master’ tension.

1. Tension between immigration policy and education export policy

Commercial international education is an economic market. But economic markets rarely operate on the basis of the free interaction of supply and demand imagined in textbooks, especially in education. They are shaped by government subsidies and regulation, by natural or artificial monopolies and other protections accorded to favoured suppliers, and by social and cultural factors. International education generates profits in English-speaking countries because of the positional advantages offered by the acquisition of global English, together with the opportunities (educational, social and economic) that developed countries provide for some but not all students. In other words, the commercial product is created by global inequalities. And these global inequalities are not simply the outcome of history or the blind operation of market forces, but are regulated politically. Access to the product ‘international education’ is determined not simply by buying power but by arbitrary policy, and is policed by force. In Australia, the most important force determining the size and character of the market is immigration regulation.

International education has always been partly about opportunities for both temporary and permanent migration. As noted, the federal immigration authorities decide who gets access. DIAC mostly facilitated the growth of the market, until the present at least. But it is always concerned about backdoor migration, students overstaying their visas, and breaches of the restrictions on student work during semester. Beneath these concerns are deeper worries about terrorism and about the national ‘character’ – whatever DIAC considers that to be, for DIAC has its own undeclared assumptions. DIAC’s classical method of administering people movement is to be harsh in its dealings with the non-citizens it wants to limit and police, as a principal method of managing the flow. We see this also in policy on refugees. It reflects the underlying anxiety of all immigration authorities about dangerous aliens at the border.

As many students experience it, DIAC is arbitrary, bureaucratic and people unfriendly. Consider this quote from one of the 200 international students interviewed in International Student Security (Marginson et al. 2010):

I hate the Immigration Department. It really freaks me out, seriously. What I feel is that the people in the Immigration Department, they just want to find some reason to send a student back to their place. That’s what I feel. Other international students feel the same. Whenever I have been to Immigration and have had to get the visa extended, their faces are horrible, they’ve got this look on their faces … like as if they’ve got some plan in which they would take students directly to the airport and deport them. It’s just education. I’m paying my money for getting educated. It is not a big deal. But here they make it a big issue. You have to be like this, that … it’s so much of a fight. I really hate it. And the questions they ask, you don’t have the answers for them. Why you can do this? Why is it like that? We never even thought about those things. I don’t know from where they get those questions. (Male, 23, business, India)

After the 9/11 attack on targets in New York and Washington in 2001, it emerged that some of the attackers had entered the country as students. Subsequently the Bush Government established the SEVIS system of surveillance, which positioned international students as potentially dangerous aliens. This created a regulatory burden for universities and infringed the liberties of the students (Rosser et al. 2007; NAFSA 2008). Non-white students were especially targeted (Harvard Civil Rights Project 2003).

This did not happen in Australia. But Australia has its own record of arbitrary and sometimes harsh treatment of international students by the immigration authorities, focused on possible visa overstays and, especially, breaches of the regulations governing student work. In the early part of the last decade DIAC cancelled the visas of many international students for what were often minor breaches of the rules governing student work, placing many in prison-like detention. The students had no recourse but protracted and expensive appeals – often from within detention – against the loss of their visas. Some students gave up and went home. Nevertheless, a third of the visa cancellations were overturned on appeal (Marginson et al. 2010, 247–250).

Struggling to manage global people flows they never fully control, receiving national governments flip between the benefits and the dangers (as they see them) of international students. The students are regulated within normative frameworks that conflict with each other. One policy framework is positive and encouraging. The other framework treats international students as a threat. The frequent student difficulties with DIAC are an ongoing problem for universities, which also find DIAC inflexible and hard of hearing. International education is in a more or less permanent stand-off between, on the one hand, DIAC and on the other hand the Education Department and the institutions. The latest round of restrictions on migration highlights this permanent tension.

Can this tension be removed? It cannot be totally abolished – in a nationally bordered world, regulation of incomers is inevitable – but it can be modified. As far as possible temporary migration should be handled separately from the regulation and politics of permanent migration. Further, there seems no good reason why temporary student visa holders should not be treated with the same courtesies as are accorded to citizens, for the duration of their stay. International students should no longer be subject to arbitrary detention, which is a form of imprisonment, for alleged breaches of visa conditions.

2. Tension between export policy and the education and research missions of universities

It is widely realised, except in university marketing departments, that a high commercial orientation is in tension with a deep focus on education and research. Teaching and learning are concerned with the self-development of students, not money as an end in itself. Research is about knowledge creation and application. Money is the means to more fundamental objectives. Research generates many long-term benefits of both the public and the private kind, benefits that cannot all be predicted in advance. In economic terms, public sector education is essentially about product maximisation. As new needs emerge they are addressed, until resources are exhausted.

In contrast, the commercial producer is primarily concerned to maximise revenues and market share while minimising unit costs. Despite the myths, education markets are not primarily driven by meeting needs. First, these markets are producer dominated – there is an inevitable asymmetry between the producer and the consumer, who cannot know what the teaching and learning are like until halfway through the program. Second, in the process of producing mass international education, there are always downward pressures on extra costs such as individualised services, extra help with English or innovations in intercultural learning. The strength of the Australian business model was that it became very good at the standardised production of high-volume, medium-quality, low-unit-cost programs in areas such as business education. However, the very success of the model created a path-dependent approach designed to keep the money flowing. The good times rolled, and this was a favourable moment to innovate and improve the product, but the production model was stuck. It was unable to evolve into a higher quality approach or even to differentiate. The one-size business model fitted all.

The market model can be organised so as to minimise low quality product, using quality assurance mechanisms. But it is a poor device for striving for excellence. In a competitive education market, at the ‘high quality’ end, ‘excellence’ becomes signified by selectivity and price rather than by the intrinsic quality of teaching and learning, which escapes market scrutiny. Further, in the commercial framework a system of quality assurance that is primarily driven by self-regulation becomes corrupted. It is turned into a branch of marketing, another way of promoting the institution. There is no objectivity, no ‘warts and all’ scrutiny – or none that is publicly acknowledged. Flaws are papered over. The objective is not better product, or customer satisfaction, but better satisfaction ratings. At the national level, the relentless barrage of promotion, supported by quality assurance in the service of the producers, aggregates into a culture of denial. Funds are falling, and funding is a crucial material condition of ‘real’ quality, but it seems that everything is always getting better and better. This reduces the political pressure on governments to provide the core funding that underpins better staffing, social access and the public good function of basic research. In a higher education market, the mechanisms designed to advance quality only succeed in emptying it out.

The notion of a conflict between profit and quality, between price and value, between capitalism and human needs, is not news. And there is a counter argument. On a good day, the market is quicker than public administration to expand opportunities and throw the door open to all (or all of those with the money in their hands). Because Australian international education has been profit driven, many more international students have gained entry to Australia than otherwise would have been the case. But this tension in Australian international education matters, because it is associated with limits and problems. In order to understand the dynamics of the tension, and modify it, we need to unpick the way it works. It is not an abstract political problem. It is localised and policy specific.

As noted, in Australia the growth of international education has been driven by, and is a primary means of achieving, the reduction of public fiscal outlays on higher education. In the 1980s these outlays were above the OECD average. In 2008 they were 0.7 per cent of GDP compared to an OECD average of 1.0 per cent (OECD 2010). The government share of total university income fell from 91 per cent in 1983 to 44 per cent in 2003, rising slightly to 45 per cent in 2007. All forms of tuition fees and charges reached 38 per cent of university income in 2007 (DEEWR 2010). In the two decades after 1984, the fall in public resources per student coupled with expanding business functions and services – much of this triggered by the business of international education – led to a fall in the average resources for teaching and research. The growth of non-academic staff outstripped that of academic staff, especially in the newer universities. In the two decades after 1984, the average student–staff ratio rose from 13 to 20 (DEEWR 2010), as highlighted in the Bradley (2008) report.

It is inconceivable that this would have had anything but negative impacts on teaching capacity, including teaching in international education. The policy and funding changes in the wake of the Bradley report have slowed or halted the deterioration in resources for teaching, but not reversed it. The downward trend in public outlays also places pressure on basic research. Research was once supported, in common with teaching, by public funding allocated on a per-student basis. But the level of funding of subsidised student places, coupled with the student contribution, has now fallen below teaching cost alone, while research project funding – which is also funded below real cost – is not enough alone to sustain core research capacity. Both domestic teaching and basic research are increasingly dependent on international student fees. Thus Australia’s research-intensive universities enrol large numbers of international students. Yet this dissipates the universities’ efforts and limits the basis of their global engagement.

3. Tension between commercial exploitation and global knowledge flows

It might seem that the tension between commercial objectives and education and research objectives is a tension between globalisation and domestic education and research. That it is globalisation that erodes the education and research capacity of Australia universities, and to assert public values it is necessary to break the global engagement. This would be a misreading of the situation. Globalisation is about worldwide engagement, convergence and partial integration. Although it takes economic forms, such as the cross-border student market, economies remain partly bordered on a national basis. Globalisation is triggered more readily by people and knowledge moving freely across borders. In many respects globalisation in higher education is more cultural than economic. It is especially active in research. In fact the same tension between commercial objectives and education and research objectives shows itself within the global strategies of Australian universities.

The global higher education environment now provides an extraordinarily rich set of options for developing teaching and research. Above all, it provides scope for knowledge exchange, partnerships and for work on projects that contribute to the common global good, for example, research on the reduction of epidemic diseases and work on climate change and water management. Australian universities do some of this, but not as much as universities in Europe and North America. Why? Resources and priorities. In their global positioning strategies Australian universities have become primarily focused on the one-way international student flow. They have become more dependent on their business acumen than their academic capacity. The ‘sell’ for Australian education is not its intellectual fire power or its distinctive contribution to human knowledge, but its beaches and the happy life. Marketing departments set the global agenda, not research professors. Australian universities can hardly complain if the world sees them as its ‘dumb blonde’, as has been alleged: attractive but lightweight; not very smart or useful. This has been the primary image that Australian universities have often chosen to project.

Research-intensive universities like Monash, Melbourne, Sydney, New South Wales and Queensland exhibit a Jekyll and Hyde personality in the global setting. At home they are student selective and focus on research. They also engage in global benchmarking and cross-border research collaborations. But they also have another international agenda, which is to build massive fee-paying enrolment to fill the revenue gap. Compared to academic activities, business methods provide a more limited set of global options. Unfortunately it has proven difficult to synergise the academic capacities of Australian universities with their business strengths because the business model is one dimensional. There is limited scope to bring research insights and cultures to bear on improving standardised high-volume coursework programs for middle-level students. Australia is weak in international doctoral education, where global competition is scholarship based not fee based. In order to sustain commercial incentives, the Australian Government provides little in subsidies for international doctoral scholarships, much less than the UK, for example.

This limits Australian universities in East and South-East Asia, where the nation’s geography and demography ought to secure an advanced role. In world higher education, the chief story of the last decade is the formation of world-class systems of education and research in Korea, Singapore, Taiwan China, Hong Kong China and, above all, mainland China. East Asia has become the third great zone of higher education and research, along with North America and Western Europe (Marginson 2010b). But Australian universities still primarily treat Asia not as a primary zone for research collaboration, but as a source region for full-fee-paying international students – as a zone for economic exploitation and not much more than that. While the fee-paying students come from Asia, most of the Australian research collaborations are in North America, the UK and Europe. There are few interfaces between scholars of Asian languages and area studies in Australia, and the international education program. The number of local students learning Asian languages remains low and relatively few local students travel to universities in Asia as part of their degrees.

The lack of balance, range and depth in Australia’s international program was remarked on in the Bradley (2008) report. The most serious defect is that because of the one-sided emphasis on revenues, Australia makes only a modest contribution to higher education in the developing world. As in the UK, the growth of the commercial market has been correlated with a decline in aid for post-secondary education (OECD 2004). AusAID is a good program, but not large enough. It is sometimes argued that full-fee international education expands capacity in emerging nations. But it benefits only the middle class – and it contributes nothing to building teaching and research where it matters most, which is in emerging nations themselves. It often seems that Australian policy makers and institutions have lost sight of the global public good. Japanese and some Western European governments do more for education in emerging nations. American and Canadian universities are also more generous. Many in Australian universities would provide greater aid if they could, but the policy settings ensure that revenue raising must take priority. Every dollar counts.

Can this tension be corrected? As long as there is commercial international education there will be pressures to elevate profit to the main goal. Yet market forces can be modified by policy, regulation and countervailing practices. The Bradley report called for a broader range of activities. Inescapably, practices such as two-way student exchange, more student scholarships, richer research collaboration and foreign aid for emerging systems in South-East Asia or Africa need to be subsidised. These are public-good activities and, by definition, market forces are unable to sustain and fund them. Yet they generate long-term benefits all round, building capacity in Australia as well as abroad and feeding back into the strength and reputation of the export sector.

4. Tension between economic consumption and student rights and security

So far I have focused on the limitations that these tensions create, for Australian higher education and Australia. Arguably, though, in some respects those most disadvantaged by Australia’s approach to international education are the international students who pay the cost. In the book International Student Security (Marginson et al. 2010), in research funded first by the Monash Institute for Global Movements and then by the Australian Research Council, Chris Nyland, Erlenawati Sawir, Helen Forbes-Mewett and I have brought issues of student security and rights to worldwide attention. Australia’s record is no worse than those of other English-speaking countries, and often better than the UK and USA, but it falls far short of what is possible.

When international students enter the nation of education they are in a difficult position. At a time when most of them have just been cut off from their customary personal support they find themselves classified both officially and unofficially as ‘outsiders’. They are something less than citizens. International students cannot exercise the full rights and entitlements of citizens in either their country of origin or their country of temporary residency. On the one hand, they cannot fully access their home country’s legal, welfare and political systems. On the other hand, they have a different and inferior status in the new country. Exactly what this means depends on the notion of education. The position of international students is affected by all laws concerning aliens and citizenship, and also by specific laws and programs that pertain to them.

The inferior status of non-citizen students is de-powering. It renders them vulnerable compared to national citizens. This might seem unexceptional in the case of short-term visitors like tourists, but it is more problematic for mobile persons resident for several years. These students are classified as aliens, yet they must deal with the housing and employment markets and subject themselves to the authority of police, the legal system and public bureaucracies, just like local citizens. Many pay the same taxes as locals.

International education in Australia is regulated by the Education Services for Overseas Students Act (the ESOS Act), and its national code. Most of the wording of the Act and the code is about immigration compliance and consumer protection. The international student is modelled not as a person with the full set of rights and entitlements, but as an economic consumer. The Act is strong on the protection of the monies students invest in fees, and on the right of students to be informed before they sign a contract, but little else. According to the code, ‘the registered provider must enter into a written agreement with the student’, which specifies the program of study, monies payable and ‘information in relation to refunds of course money’ (DEEWR 2007, standard 3, section 3.1). There is no contract between students and government and no reference in the code to political rights or representation. The Act and the code touch only briefly on other areas of international students’ security, more in relation to information and advice concerning services in areas such as accommodation and welfare, than in relation to services themselves. On-campus student safety is not mentioned. Nor does the ESOS structure, which regulates international education by controlling the provider institutions, provide for international student security and rights in the community outside the campus, where most of the problems are.

The international student is treated as only half a person: a person with consumer rights, but not legal, civil, industrial, political or educational rights. International Student Security includes a comparison of the formal governmental rights, entitlements and benefits available to international and local students respectively, in all domains (Marginson et al. 2010, 17–20). There were 28 policy areas in which the position of international students was both distinctive and inferior. Nearly all forms of public financial support, including welfare and housing, were inaccessible. In the two largest Australian states they paid full fares on public transport – local students paid concession rates. While public schooling was free for local families, most international students paid full fees for their student children. International students received less personal financial aid from universities though they paid much higher tuition. Some postgraduate research scholarships were closed to them, as were certain bank services. Both groups had access to health cover, but international students were not included in the public Medicare scheme and had to take out private insurance, more costly than the Medicare levy paid by local students through taxation. International student visas specified that during semester the students could work only 20 hours per week. Local students had an unrestricted right to work. International students from certain countries had implied restrictions on political activity. Their visas included condition 8303: ‘You must not become involved in any activities that are disruptive to, or in violence threaten harm to, the Australian community or a group within the Australian community’. Not only are the rights of international students restricted, they are officially ‘othered’ as aliens and a potential threat.

This official othering provides conditions for their unofficial othering. The 200 students interviewed in International Student Security discuss numerous instances in which they were subordinated, marginalised or abused. Either their outsider status was at play, or the perpetrator attempted to position them as outsiders. Some such experiences were on campus. For example, one student was abused by a uniformed member of the university security staff: ‘It happened just two days after September 11 … He just yelled at me with very rude words, and said “fucking Muslims”, and “go back to your country”’ (female, 30, science, Indonesia).

But nearly all the sharply negative experiences happen in the general community. Among the 200 interviewees, many reported that they had never experienced prejudice, discrimination or abuse. But 99 of the students said they had experienced cultural hostility or prejudice in Australia. Almost all of those students were non-white. (The exceptions were two American students, who were criticised because of US intervention in Iraq.) The perception of hostility or prejudice was higher among women than men. Muslim students faced particular difficulties.

Q. Have you experienced hostility or prejudice while in Australia?

A. Yes, many times. (Male, 37, PhD in mathematics, Indonesia)

Several students said that they had been profoundly distressed by unprovoked incidents in the community. In these incidents they were made to feel outsiders, aliens, often with lasting effect. There was no process whereby they could claim rights and seek redress. Consumer rights were no help at this point. They needed to reassert their dignity and agency, to claim the right to respect and to belong. They could not. Instead they found themselves been pushed in the other direction:

There was one incident that I’ll never forget. It happened to me when I was up in Melbourne, in my first six months here. I was at the South Yarra train station. I was standing next to this woman, and she turned round to me and started abusing me. “Why don’t you just go back where you came from, we don’t want you here!” It really took me aback. It was the last thing I expected … I was blind. I was walking into town … I just carried on walking. It was so embarrassing. Ever since that, I’ve been more conscious about being different, about my colour, my nationality. (Female, 22, business, Zimbabwe)

The uncorrected binary structure of citizen/outsider opens international students to this more brutal marginalisation in the community. It gives comfort to the perpetuators – who are in no doubt they belong and are superior to the outsiders. Recurring problems of stereotyping, discrimination and abuse affect not just international students in Australia but in all of the English-speaking provider nations where the legal structure is similar (eg UKCISA 2004; Spencer-Rodgers 2001; Spencer-Rodgers and McGovern 2002). The same asymmetry of treatment and respect makes it very hard to close the gap in relations between local and international students, a problem often noted in the research (eg Lee and Rice 2007; Volet and Ang 1998). It seems it is only when local and international students live together for sustained periods in student residences that the dynamics of cultural segregation begin to shift on a broad basis (see Marginson et al. 2010, chapters 7 and 16). But Australia refuses to subsidise intercultural student housing.

5. Tension between national political economy and the global public good

The human rights of international students, like those of all mobile persons, are a global public good. We all share an interest in safe and secure passage between nations and we all gain when there is mutual respect between national citizens and mobile non-citizens in an interdependent world. However, the Australian international education program is focused not on the global public good, but on the good of the national political economy – and, within that economy, on the private good of low-tax-paying citizens (for whom full-fee international students save government outlays on higher education) and the private corporate good of the individual universities that need the money that international students bring.

Global mixing and tolerance are also public goods and higher education has a leading role in creating them. Does international education contribute to these public goods? Yes, it does, and profoundly so – often despite the policy settings rather than because of them – but it is also flawed and lopsided and could be much better. The cultural diversity international students bring to the country of education ought to be seen as an asset. Instead this diversity often conjures up indifference in the host and works to the disadvantage of the guest.

International students are trapped in two binaries, the familiar/unfamiliar binary of cultural difference and the us/them binary of citizenship. These two binaries are interactive and reinforce each other. Differences of appearance and voice brand the foreign student as not one of us. By no means all local citizens are prejudiced towards international students, and some are culturally engaged, but all see them as outsiders with weak claims to the common weal. The structure ‘nation’ is geared to deny them full equality of respect.

The underlying problem is the inability of nation-states to rise to the challenge of global interdependence, as was writ large in Copenhagen early in 2010 when no deal could be reached on global targets for carbon reduction. When political decisions on global matters are left in the hands of nation states, whether operating unilaterally or bilaterally, they automatically put the interests of their own citizens above others. Weak essays into the global good are dropped like a stone when powerful companies or taxpayers/electors object. It is politically as well as economically expedient to push half a million foreign students to the margin. They don’t vote.

In the face of these limitations there are two moves that can be made, if we can catch national governments in an enlightened moment.

The first move is to re-norm international education. International students are not people in educational, social or cultural ‘deficit’. These are strong human agents, deciding for themselves, managing complex personal changes, engaged in self-formation through education and global mobility. The challenges and achievements mostly exceed those of local students. They should be accepted as persons with the full set of human rights, whatever country they are in. Nations should extend to non-citizen international students the same rights and entitlements as to citizen students. International students should be quasi-citizens for the duration of their stay. (We might make exceptions in a small number of designated areas where national treatment might be warranted, such as the right to vote in national elections.) To those who object on the grounds that international students are not lifetime taxpayers, and therefore should receive a lesser entitlement, it can be pointed out that international students do pay taxes (and more) while in the country of education – and anyway they will not receive lifetime benefits. The arrangement will stand only for the duration of their stay as students.

The second move is to make this concrete by developing a global protocol for the empowerment and protection of mobile students. Sending/importing countries could negotiate with the receiving/exporting government a set of principles that provide for the rights and entitlements of the students. This protocol would be developed on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with specifications referring to areas such as education, housing, crisis support and intercultural relations. A possible form for such a global protocol (‘compact’) is included as an appendix to this chapter. (This is the author’s own early draft. A more authoritative approach is under development at the Australian Human Rights Commission.)

Such protocols then become seen as best practice in international education. If enough such agreements are developed around the world on a bilateral basis, this begins to create momentum for the emergence of an informal global standard subject to widespread policy imitation. Thus the regime of international student security and rights could be constructed by an incremental process of voluntary agreement, whereby each nation makes its education system into a globally responsible space. Going further, when enough international agreement has been secured in this manner, the rights of international students could be regulated by a global agency.


Compact in relation to international students studying in Australia [draft only]

(The draft protocol that follows was prepared by the author in October 2010 as a contribution to then current discussion in Australia on possible forms of regulation of the rights of international students.)

Statement of Rights and Responsibilities


Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which states: ‘The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace’. Australia is committed to the provision of non-discriminatory forms of education for all persons, and to the provision of the conditions and resources necessary to ensure the right to education as outlined in the ICESCR.

International students are especially welcomed in Australia because of their financial, economic, social, cultural and moral contributions to Australia, and because of the benefits that their education brings to friendly relations between their home countries and Australia. Because of their many contributions, Australia has obligations to protect and uphold them, and government in Australia has responsibilities for ensuring that this obligation is met.

Temporary migrants holding student visas shall be considered to be members of Australian society for the duration of those visas. Government in Australia will undertake such actions and measures as are necessary to ensure the full inclusion of each international student as a valued member of the Australian community, with all the rights and obligations that this implies, for the duration of the student visa.

Australia has a duty of care in relation to international students, many of whom stay on the soil of the nation for a period of several years duration. Government in Australia also recognises that international students are self-managing persons, with the right to make choices about their education and their lives, and the right to exercise their own values and beliefs, in a manner consistent with the laws of Australia and the obligations of those students to their home-country governments.

All members of Australian society, including temporary migrants holding student visas, have the right to social security and to the realisation, through national effort and in accordance with the organisation and resources of Australian governments, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for individual dignity and the free development of personality.

International students studying in Australia shall be entitled to the same protections and benefits as Australian citizens, except where specific provision is made to the contrary according to law. This statement shall not exclude international students from receiving protections and benefits specifically pertaining to their status as international students.

Government in Australia recognises that the inclusion of significant numbers of international students creates additional requirements in relation to social and economic infrastructure and services in Australia. In addition, a large scale of international education program creates the need for services tailored specifically to the needs of international students.

International students in Australia have both rights and responsibilities. While in Australia international students have obligations to conduct themselves according to the laws and relevant regulations of Australia and government in Australia, including the conditions governing their student visas.


  1. Equivalence with citizens. Consistent with this compact and the laws of Australia, international students shall enjoy rights equivalent to those of citizens, in general and specifically in relation to the rights:
    1. To have access to justice. This includes recognition as a person before the law, equality before the law, equal protection of the law without any discrimination, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, the right not to be tried or punished twice for the same offence, and access to legal services as appropriate.
    2. To live in a safe environment, including protection from crime.
    3. To own property alone as well as in association with others, without being arbitrarily deprived of that property.
    4. To live in a non-discriminatory environment, to protection from any discrimination in violation of this compact or in law, and to practise any language of choice.
    5. To privacy and freedom from harassment by any party, including arbitrary interference with family, home or communications, or attacks on honour and reputation.
    6. To freedom of movement and residence within the borders of Australia; to leave the country, and to return to it, subject to visa requirements.
    7. To work, subject to visa requirements, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, to decent work and the payment of minimum wages, and to other award conditions as appropriate, to equal pay for equal work, to form and join trade unions.
    8. To equal access to health and welfare services, as appropriate.
    9. To equal access to transport services.
    10. To equal access to accommodation services.
    11. To good-quality education for self and for dependents.
    12. To freedom of religion.
    13. To freedom of civil and political association, including peaceful assembly.
    14. To freedom of opinion and expression; this includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.
  2. Specific requirements as international students. In addition, government in Australia undertakes to ensure that international students will have access to such specific services, pertaining to their needs as international students, as they require for the duration of their stay. Without exclusion this shall include:
    1. The provision of specific information in relation to educational and other matters, as required, with attention to the needs of international students as new arrivals in Australia.
    2. Access to safe accommodation.
    3. Access to interpreter and translation services as required.
    4. Access to assistance in matters of communication and the use of the English language, while studying.

Statement concerning implementation

The parties to this compact shall be the Australian Government and the home-country government of any nation from which international students accepted to study in Australia have originated.

International education in Australia is governed under the Australian Constitution by the Educational Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act and the relevant schedules and regulations.

All references to ‘government in Australia’ in this compact shall be held to apply jointly and severally to the Australian Government (the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia), the governments of the states and territories, and local government. Responsibility for specific tasks shall be determined as appropriate on the basis of negotiation between the levels of government, the Australian Constitution, and any prevailing legislation.

All international students studying in Australian institutions are entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

In the exercise of the rights and freedoms of international students, they shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society, or for the protection of national security, public order, public health or public morality.

All Australian education providers shall set aside one per cent of the revenues received for the education of each individual international student for the promotion of the social inclusion of international students in Australia, consistent with this compact and any prevailing legislation.


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1 ‘David Buckingham, principal adviser to the office of the vice-chancellor at Monash University, is worried. “The administrative conditions imposed by the Australian visa system are actually far more onerous than [those that] apply with competitor countries”, he says. “It’s treating the students and their families almost as if they are money launderers, rather than those who are actually prepared to pay a significant amount in the education of their children.” Under current visa arrangements, the family of a Chinese student wanting to do an undergraduate course at Monash would need to show it had up to $150,000 in the bank for six months before the date of the visa application, he says. In comparison, Britain requires students to show a bank deposit of about $40,000 held for 28 days. The US merely asks the student to show adequate funds for self-sufficiency’ (Das and Collins 2010).

A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen