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

Going ‘glocal’

Enhancing the educational experience for international students at Monash South Africa

Shibu Sangale

Monash University

The raison d’être of formalised education across the globe is the preparation of younger generations for their future economic, political and social responsibilities. Across the span of students’ learning experiences, higher education is designed not only to provide suitable curricula but also to inspire and provoke responsiveness to the definitive questions of the age. This ethos requires particular sensitivity when located in the context of the processes of globalisation. As such, a basic function of higher education in the contemporary world is the internationalisation of curriculum and community. The greater Monash, which includes multiple campuses both in Australia and internationally, has adopted this position in policy and practice (Fahey 2007). At Monash South Africa (MSA), however, internationalisation has taken on an additional component.

Founded in 2001, MSA is a relatively recent addition to the international presence of the Monash brand. In this tradition, MSA is commited to the delivery of an international perspective to education (Monash University 2011). MSA realises this commitment through its alignment with Monash’s other international sites and a student body that comprises mainly people non-native to South Africa. There are 58 non-South African nationalities represented on campus, which make up approximately 68 per cent of the student body. The wellbeing of international students is thus pivotal to the institution’s form and function. However, limitations to the potency and effectiveness of the Monash internationalisation project are evident within the student body. For instance, the institution cannot determine how students traverse cultural beliefs and global norms. Nor, as is a concern of all multicultural contexts, can the institution control how racial, ethnic, national and religious affiliations emerge within the student body.

My contribution to the discussion about international students, which provides the focus of this book, is speculative rather than based on research evidence. However, my experience as a MSA student in both undergraduate and postgraduate programs lends some credibility to the points I make. This discussion is intended to provoke debate about the modes of internationalisation that Monash may consider as it looks to the future. Most importantly, it addresses the dynamics of social integration and representation from an international student perspective at MSA.

The student body

Unlike typical university settings, life for the majority of MSA students is highly insular. In my experience, MSA international students move primarily within the Ruimsig suburb, where the campus is located. Within this area students have access to essential services, basic retail and, most importantly, accommodation.1 Movements outside the area are generally inhibited by budget and transport. Many students who venture outside of Ruimsig are unwilling or unable to navigate the local public transport system. As a result, the majority utilise an emergent network of taxis, targeted at the student market. However, taxi transport is very costly. For example, a trip to Sandton, a popular retail district, costs A$34.50 and going to the airport costs A$55.20. These prices gain further relevance when considering that the typical student budget is only about A$277 per month.

It follows that many MSA students are often isolated from the world outside of the campus and its environs. In some cases this leads to a sense of isolation, which may leave international students vulnerable to exploitation when they venture away from campus (eg Kell and Vogel 2008, x). This is exacerbated in South Africa by the threat of xenophobic violence, as experienced in late 2010. Under these circumstances the university setting becomes a site of personal safety, social engagement and learning for international students. Given these special conditions, an assumption might be that MSA has a relatively cohesive student body. However, this is not the case.

While institutional practices at MSA aim to perform an integrative role – by creating and administering roles and identities within the community, and delineating appropriate strategies, behaviours and goals to govern the environment – informal factors play a pivotal role in shaping the social reality (Preuss 1995). In my experience social groups feature heavily in student life at MSA. This is a critical area of concern, as evident in studies arguing that social dynamics and, in particular, culture can directly affect students’ prospects for success in the academic environment. Moreover, institutions must be conscious of cultural biases that may present barriers to positive university experiences (Hall 1992).

Given the relative unfamiliarity of university life to most new intakes, international students often experience a sense of social separation (Baker and Hawkins 2006). Unsurprisingly, they seek out what is familiar to fill the void. At MSA there has been a tendency for students to form groups with people from similar nationalities. This process is catalysed through the cumulative effects of two kinds of informal associations. The students’ initial migration is the first of these. I have noticed that many international students come to MSA in groups. Such groupings are often formed in the country of origin and the students move into similar national groupings after their arrival on campus. The students recruited through such migration networks often choose to retain these familiar connections in their social lives. Where there is cross-national interaction, it is often contained within the Ruimsig area. In this regard, limitations on students’ movements have facilitated habitual contact in the common areas of campus and the general services in the vicinity of MSA. However, such interactions are generally superficial, with the exception of those students who reside with peoples of other nationalities.

For these reasons nationality serves as an agent of social organisation and a determinant in the formation of social and study relationships. Communication within these groups is often conducted in vernacular languages. In many instances this prevents people of different nationalities from engaging with each other. As a point of concern for the institution, the formation of diasporic groups on campus may undermine the foreign exposure that the internationalisation project is thought to promote. This highlights the importance of effective social integration as part of the internationalisation of Monash campuses.

Diasporas are not unique to MSA; however, given the growing influx of international students there are indications that formalised national groupings are manifest throughout the institution. For instance, a trend in recent years has been the formation of country societies. The two largest international student groupings, the Batswana (accounting for 14 per cent of the student body) and the Zimbabweans (accounting for 36 per cent), have followed this trend (MUSASA 2011b). These nationalities are also the most frequently represented in the Monash University South Africa Student Association (MUSASA) (MUSASA 2011a).

Given this pattern, there is a danger that the interests of larger national coalitions may be addressed more readily by MUSASA and that smaller communities may be excluded from influential areas of extramural activity such as MUSASA. This is because students typically vote for their social peers who, in turn, are most likely to be of the same nationality. Thus students’ nationality provides the potential to access opportunities and improve status. The nexus between these issues and the form and function of MUSASA lies in the inherent tensions between student representation and a representative student association. It is clear that representation may not always be representative and therefore may not always function in the way it was intended.

Sociologists have pointed to similar trends in many multicultural contexts. Petersen refers to this phenomenon as an embedded ‘tipping game’ of social systems, wherein contextual norms such as cultural groupings and status play a pivotal role in conceptualising how social systems function within specific settings (Petersen 1999, 67). The institution’s role in this ‘tipping game’ is found at two levels. On the one hand the university attempts to neutralise the role of national alliances by setting out clear mandates that apply to everyone. However, on the other hand, by doing so the institution has inadvertently defined the strategic contexts in which nationality is important. This affects the nature of student allegiances outside the classroom and how such associations affect their relationships with each other and the university. In light of these problems, the obligation to encourage ‘global citizenship’ is highlighted.

Despite these criticisms, the MUSASA model has useful application within MSA. Indeed, one of the essential qualities of student associations is that they are not directed by the administration and can support student demands. The association’s motto, ‘Unity Through Diversity’, embodies the spirit of students’ consciousness of the divisive potential of cultural differences (MUSASA 2011a). MUSASA has attempted to activate these values through the support and creation of country and religious societies, as well as the International Student Liaison portfolio (MUSASA 2011c). However, there are some measures that may be applied to the model to better facilitate the international experience for students from other countries. The task at hand is to celebrate the rich cultural influences present on the campus to better recognise and respond to the needs of international students.

Encouraging the international experience

In recognising social integration as essential to student welfare and education (Severiens and Wolff 2008), there is a need to develop a tradition of multiculturalism at MSA, facilitated through an organic link between the institution and the diverse groups represented on the campus. This may be facilitated through three strategies: utilising campus expertise, expanding the current MUSASA portfolio and celebrating diversity.

The role of experts

Although the need for a multicultural approach may be easily recognised, we should not take it for granted. Students need assistance to understand the process in which they are involved. One of the first steps in developing this kind of sensitivity is to start socially integrative processes at Monash early. The recently published A UK Guide to Enhancing the International Student Experience (i-graduate 2010a) suggests involving prospective international students in student bodies before their arrival on campus. Collaboration with these units promotes cultural and social integration, and may encourage continual integration if similar opportunities are created throughout the year (i-graduate 2010b). An additional benefit of this approach is that it creates peer mentorship roles for experienced students, aiding in their leadership development.

Similarly, it may be useful to supply institutional mentorship to students elected to key portfolios of MUSASA; these may be sourced from the academic and administrative contingent as the need arises. Furthermore, they serve to facilitate undergraduate learning in line with Chickering and Gamson’s ‘Seven principles for undergraduate learning’, which stipulate that interaction with staff and students has a direct influence on the positive and effective learning experiences (Chickering and Gamson 1987).

Portfolio expansion

Another possible direction is to consider creating additional portfolios mandated to deal with specific special-interest issues such as gender, sexual orientation, culture and religion. These topologies are crucial in the orientation of Monash student politics in line with globally recognised rights and liberties. The expansion of MUSASA may also enable student representatives to habituate ‘good governance’ practices that migrate with them on their return to their home states. In the case of young Africans this becomes all the more important, particularly given the highly charged political states that most MSA students originate from.

Celebrating diversity

One model that claims to have delivered some success is the celebration of diversity as undertaken by Georgia State University’s International Student Associations Council (ISAC) (Georgia State University 2010). ISAC is made up of representatives from several nationalities on campus, who meet periodically to deliberate on issues pertaining to international students. While some may argue that MUSASA as it stands is an international student organisation because it is composed of foreign nationals, there are other merits offered by the ISAC model that differentiate it significantly. For example, ISAC regularly coordinates with the student administration to organise events to celebrate different cultural or national holidays. This serves as a means of social integration for the students because it exposes unaware students to areas outside their cultural experience, celebrates the diversity of the student body and allows for a university-sanctioned mode of cultural exchange that distinguishes the student experience at the university. A drawback of the ISAC model is that it is heavily reliant on institutional resources that may not be available in the current economic climate.

Going ‘glocal’

Beyond the principle of inclusivity, higher education institutions must always be outward looking. In this regard the internationalisation project must extend beyond the tenure of the relevant degree program. My exploration of these dynamics centres on the notion of ‘glocalisation’, which has been defined as a process of cultural hybridisation whereby the local becomes global: global becomes local. In the interests of Africa’s economic ambitions, this is of course related to the reintegration of graduates into host societies where skills shortages are evident. Thus an area of consideration for MSA in the future is how international students are integrated into the workforce when they return home. It is in the interests of the marketability of the institution to outline employment prospects for graduates on their return to their countries of origin. Recognising the significance of future work prospects for graduates, MSA promises new entrants that they will ‘[b]e part of an international community of Monash graduates who are highly sought after by employers worldwide for their skills, leadership qualities and civic commitment’ (Monash University 2011). This is particularly important because of national immigration policies that often impede international students from attaining employment in host nations. The institution should ideally aim to create new salient linkages with industry and politics spanning the continent, thereby ensuring that the international experience attained at Monash is actively used to develop African capacities.

Flinders University in Australia has had some success in programs of this kind. Through its ‘Going Home’ program, the university facilitates the departure arrangements for international graduates and prepares them ‘for re-entry into students’ home culture’. In addition, they offer career advice for returning graduates (Flinders University 2009).

Conclusion

While at university, most students find resources within themselves and among others that help them to interact and to ultimately reconcile themselves to lives as adults in a formidable world. My contribution to this book has been inspired in part by this journey. In this chapter I have considered the political character of international students at MSA and how this feature of the international student body may be guided towards a celebration of diversity and the activation of global civic mindedness. While this discussion is rooted in the extracurricular domain, we must remember that the academic program lies at the heart of all other activities in tertiary institutions. Efforts to stimulate multicultural engagement must reside first and foremost in the education arena. The recent Finding Common Ground report by Sophie Arkoudis echoes these testaments. Arkoudis advocates the formalised incorporation of cross-cultural interaction in course design as a way ‘to harness the potential of student diversity’ (Arkoudis 2010, 6, 11). Nowhere is this more important than on the African continent, where skills scarcity and ethnic divides determine the prospects for so many individuals. Students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds in MSA must be encouraged to integrate socially to enhance their educational experiences and foster global links in the interests of bettering societies at home and abroad.

References

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Severiens, S; Wolff, R. 2008. ‘A comparison of ethnic minority and majority students: Social and academic integration and quality of learning’. Studies in Higher Education 33 (3): 253–266.

1 The exponential growth rate of MSA has meant that most students simply cannot be accommodated on campus; many of them reside within five kilometres of the campus.

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

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen