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

Back to fundamentals

What is the international student experience?

Danny (Ming Kiat) Ong

Monash University


This chapter begins with some key definitions. A ‘home’ is ‘the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered’ ( 2011); it follows that ‘a home away from home’ is a foreign place that has the comforts of home. From a marketing perspective, ‘A Home Away From Home’ would make an excellent slogan to promote Australian education to prospective international students. It is consistent with research showing that international students often select host countries that promise to provide them with study and living conditions either comparable to or better than in their home country (Marginson et al. 2010; Mazzarol and Soutar 2001).

Once individuals regard a place as their home, they are more likely to develop a deep sense of affiliation towards it. If international students came to regard Australia as their home, rather than as a host country, there would be a number of flow-on benefits. It would not only promote better alumni relations and philanthropy, but also a much-needed competitive edge for Australia over other global education providers in attracting the increasingly limited pool of prospective students through positive word of mouth.

A student is ‘a person formally engaged in learning, especially one enrolled in a school or college’, while experience is defined as ‘the process or fact of personally observing, encountering, or undergoing something’ ( 2011). As I discuss in this chapter, current ways of thinking about international student experiences have already transcended the physical boundaries of classrooms and campuses. However, these ways of thinking have yet to provide due consideration to the innate and personal needs of international students. Indeed, most students have limited opportunities to self-define their own experiences in Australia and build their sense of affiliation towards the country and their host institutions.

This chapter revisits the concept of international student experiences in Australia and how it reflects the students’ actual experiences. In the process, it seeks to challenge the common omission of negative student experiences from such concepts, which prevents the production of a more comprehensive understanding of the experience for international students in Australia.

The development of the international student experience in Australia

Due to its close association with the marketing strategies of the Australian education sector, many individuals assume that the international student experience is a modern concept (Ong 2006). However, it first gained significance under the Colombo Plan in the 1950s as a political and social tool. During this period, international students were awarded prestigious scholarships to undertake education and training. Although the Colombo Plan was widely promoted as seeking to up-skill individuals from less developed countries and promote regional stability in Asia, it was driven primarily by political motivations. As a result, historical records show that the experiences of international students were constructed by Australian universities in a way that aimed to better support integration between the students and local communities (Oakman 2004).

Most students benefited from the home-stay arrangements with Australian families and the academic support provided at universities (Auletta 2000). However, although the benefits were evident, the motivation for these apparently altruistic arrangements was not solely to assist international students. The attention was driven by the fear that international students from the Asian region would be influenced by communist thinking and that this would have implications for Australia (Auletta 2000; Oakman 2004). In addition, successful integration between international students and Australian citizens would alleviate any potential resentment by the local community towards a more open immigration policy (Oakman 2004).

Although historical records do not provide a detailed view of the international students’ experiences during the time of the Colombo Plan, discussions with alumni indicate that for their general wellbeing they were left largely to their own devices (Auletta 2000). Unfortunately, as some international students did not have adequate support for their mental stress and cultural isolation, the success of the Colombo Plan was marred by several student suicides (Lowe and Oakman 2004). However, despite the underlying political motivations for the Colombo Plan and challenges faced by international students, many alumni were able to benefit from the experience and fondly reflected on their time in Australia (Auletta 2000). Interviews with alumni suggested that there was a self-defining element within their Australian study experience. They indicated that some of their positive experiences were derived from their own initiatives to undertake volunteer and part-time work, which were not part of any official arrangements under the Colombo Plan.

The success of Colombo Plan alumni saw a surge in the number of private international students undertaking education in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s; this led to an increased concentration of students from overseas within some universities (Auletta 2000). This was because private international students were benefiting from the heavily subsidised university fees enjoyed by the local students. Megarrity (2007, 40) notes that ‘this subsidisation … was mainly seen by the Commonwealth as part of its wider effort to secure good diplomatic relations with countries in the Asia Pacific region’. This period also saw the first link between international education and Australian permanent residency. With the abolition of the White Australia policy, private international students were attracted by the ease of securing Australian permanent residency (Marginson et al. 2010). This was supported by the fact that ‘approximately seventy-five per cent of private overseas students were granted permanent residency in Australia during the 1970s’ (Megarrity 2007, 40). Despite the surge in the number of international students, Marginson and colleagues (2010) note that they did not receive any significant policy attention. However, it is clear that the larger international student population in Australia affected local policies, notably the ability of the Commonwealth Government to continue to provide heavily subsidised education.

With the decline of the communist threat and decreasing financial contributions by other Commonwealth nations for the Colombo Plan, the 1980s saw the shift of international education to ‘a deregulated full fee paying regime’ (Auletta 2000, 9). Recognising international education as a potential export market, the Australian Government introduced full fees for international students and gradually abolished any subsidised places for them (Marginson et al. 2010; Megarrity 2007). The export revenue collected from the students was used to improve Australia’s trade balances and fund public education institutions. The policy of full-fee-paying international students has been a common feature of Australian education landscape ever since. To maintain a steady flow of international students to feed the Australian education sector, proactive marketing and aggressive recruitment strategies are undertaken by government agencies (previously by Australian Education International, now by Austrade) and education institutions. International education is now a commodity and the international education experience the brand that defines the sector.

Current concepts of the international student experience

Australia utilises the international student experience as a concept to describe its unique environment, which fosters better growth and development of international students than other countries do. This is prominent in three themes under its official international education marketing tagline, ‘Live, Learn and Grow’:

Live – Australia is one of the best places in the world to live while you learn. The standard of living is amongst the highest in the world, yet remain[s] competitive … Learn – Australian education has a strong international reputation for excellence … [and] Grow – The benefits of living and learning in Australia are both personal and academic. [and] will give you the best platform to succeed in your career, and prepare you for the challenges of the workplace. (Study in Australia 2011a)

These themes are consistent with research on the decision-making process of international students when selecting a host country. Mazzarol and Soutar (2001) found that a significant portion of their student respondents indicated that the quality of education was the most important factor that draws them to a host country. Indeed, the Australian Government proactively promotes the academic excellence of its education institutions while reinforcing the education quality by openly advertising its ‘most rigorous consumer protection tools’, notably the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act) (DEEWR 2011). This is supported by its tagline, ‘Australia – a place where your quality of education is guaranteed. Period.’ (Study in Australia 2011b). It is noteworthy that the word ‘consumer’ is used to refer to international students in the ESOS Act, instead of ‘student’ (DEEWR 2010). This reflects the commercial mindset of the Australian Government. In addition to academic factors, Mazzarol and Soutar (2001) found that international students were drawn to the living conditions of the host country, notably part-time work opportunities and a safe, low-crime environment. Further, the Australian Government promotes its multicultural society by reinforcing the perception that Australia is a safe country for international students from different racial backgrounds.

The three themes help to identify the elements the Australian Government uses to construct the parameters of international student experiences within the country; Australian educational institutions often utilise some of these themes to shape their own concepts of the experiences. Eighteen elements from the Study in Australia (2011a) website are identified below and categorised into the three themes.

Theme 1: Live Theme 2: Learn Theme 3: Grow
Value for money (living expenses) Academic quality Multiculturalism
Multiculturalism Choice – programs Safety
Safety Flexibility – pathways Working while studying
Working while studying Personal needs Friendly community
Fun/energy Innovative teaching  
Travel within the country Global recognition  
Heritage/events Learning English  
  Consumer protection  
  Support services  
  Value for money (education fees)  

Although these 18 elements provide a well-rounded concept of the international student experience in Australia and potentially attract a larger group of prospective students, it is a significant challenge for the host country to meet all of the students’ expectations. There are numerous variables within these elements that are impossible to regulate, notably the choices made by international students. For example, travel within Australia may promote a better cultural understanding of the country, but excessive travel may disrupt the students’ academic life. In most cases it is highly likely that the students with negative experiences will blame others rather than themselves.

As students’ expectations are normally based on information provided about the host country, usually from official and reliable sources, some countries utilise elements on official websites to define their concept of the international student experience. For example, Education USA (2011), the official international education website for the United States, uses only five elements to define its distinct experience for international students: (1) Academic quality; (2) Choice – programs; (3) Flexibility – pathways; (4) Value for money (education fees); and (5) Value for money (living expenses). These elements present a view that prospective students will receive a high-quality education with affordable fees. The strategy is based on the fact that the US is the leader in international education and this reputation is sufficient to attract prospective students without the need to resort to non-academic elements, including the provision of a total student experience.

Current limitations of the Australian international student experience

Australian international student experiences are constantly under review by government agencies and education institutions, in response to market demands and the students’ needs. Despite increased attention by government agencies, universities and researchers, the challenges faced by international students during the Colombo Plan in the 1950s still persist today. Problems such as cultural adaptation and ability to communicate with the locals continue to prevent international students from achieving a desirable experience in Australia. This can be attributed to the fact that the concept of international student experience as a marketing tool has been based on the needs of the Australian Government and institutions and not on those of the students. This helps explain why the concept does not provide a totality of the experiences of international students in Australia.

The absence of information about the total student experience is evident in the public debate about the dichotomy of on- and off-campus experiences of international students in Australia. As the ESOS Act effectively limits the responsibilities of Australian education institutions towards international students within their campus environment, measurements (eg surveys) of the students’ experience were often restricted to their on-campus experience, notably their learning, teaching, administration and support services, while their off-campus experiences were left largely ignored (Symons 2009). Although foreign government representatives had repeatedly raised their concerns about the off-campus welfare of their students studying in Australia, the Australian federal and state governments failed to provide an appropriate response. In March 2009, after a series of demonstrations by Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney about their public safety and welfare, with the Indian media as a catalyst, the Australian governments were forced to recognise the importance of international students’ off-campus environment. This dichotomy of on- and off-campus experiences was effectively rejected when then Federal Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, declared that ‘the quality of the international student experience, both on- and off-campus, matches the quality of learning that they receive’ (Gillard 2010). This position is also supported by Universities Australia (UA), the peak body for Australia’s 39 universities, in a paper that focuses on enhancing international student experiences and safety (UA 2009).

It is clear that most changes to policies relating to international students are reactive in nature, particularly where there are issues that threaten the lucrative industry. Sebastian (2010, 19) notes that ‘overseas students’ subsequent ability to procure concessions was derived not from their political or universal rights to education services, but from their ability to influence policy changes based on their important participation and strategic location in the Australian economy’. This assessment is supported by Marginson and colleagues (2010, 10), who found that Australian ‘policy makers, regulators and researchers rarely seek advice from the international students themselves’. Noting the personal elements of student experiences, this presents a paradox, where Australia is aiming to provide more positive experiences for international students without any adequate direct consultations with them to address their concerns.

Historically, as the primary focus of Australian international education shifted from altruistic to commercial purposes, international students acknowledged that the Australian Government would not voluntarily implement any policies that would benefit them. This led to the establishment of the ‘first national collective structure in which to engage with government policy’, the National Liaison Committee for Overseas Students in Australia (NLC) (Sebastian 2010, 262). Prior to the establishment of this national body, smaller international representative bodies could be found in most universities, but they had limited success in lobbying for concessions from the government and education institutions. However, current student visa conditions do not support international students’ involvement with student representation. Unlike their domestic counterparts, who can take study leave to assume a role in a student union, international students must complete their studies within a specific period and have limited time for such activities (Ong 2006). Thus it is often a significant challenge for international representative bodies to find suitable candidates who can effectively voice their views and challenge any unjust policies.

Due to the weakness of international students’ representation, their voices are often ignored by stakeholders. This has been prominent in the discussion relating to the provision of transport concessions. Unlike in the other Australian states, international students in New South Wales and Victoria are not eligible for transport concessions. This is ironic, as these two states are the largest international education providers in Australia. In August 2009 Bruce Baird was asked by Minister for Education Julia Gillard to head a review of international education in Australia. During a joint press conference with Gillard to report on his review, on 9 March 2010, Baird (2010) expressed the following concern on the issue of transport concessions:

I’ve been around Australia several times talking to groups, both students and education providers … it was an issue that was raised at every single forum. The students believe it’s discriminatory, that they have paid a large amount in terms of fees and when there is one set of charges that applies to domestic students and one to international students, there is a resentment there … I believe a small amount of cost to grant the transport concessions would be appropriate … but discrimination in terms of travel passes goes to the very heart … these students need to feel part of Australia and I think that [transport concessions] is part of it.

International students’ desire for transport concessions in New South Wales and Victoria is not a recent phenomenon. Sebastian (2010) notes that this desire was reflected in various national campaigns organised by national student bodies in 1989 and 1992. In 2006 an international student representative successfully brought an anti-discrimination case against the New South Wales Department of Transport and State Rail for not providing transport concessions to international students (SUPRA 2011). In July 2010 it was raised by the president of the newly formed Council of International Students Australia (CISA) in a variety of media (Trounson 2010). In blatant ignorance of international students’ voices, during my discussions with some senior government officials in these two states the latter indicated that transport concessions would only be granted if it was proven that their absence threatens the lucrative education export market (Ong 2009). So the question must be asked: What can be done to ensure that the national international student body is strong enough to ensure that its views are sought after and considered?

It is common for government agencies and education institutions to claim that international students do have a voice about their experiences, notably through the use of specific satisfaction surveys such as the Australian Education International (AEI) International Student Survey. Agencies and institutions have used these surveys to place an undue emphasis on international students’ positive experiences, without sufficient consideration of their negative ones. This often leads to a certain level of complacency within the sector. For example, the AEI 2007 Follow-up International Student Survey on Vocational Education and Training (VET) found that ‘a high proportion of international respondents expressed satisfaction with studying in Australia and with their course experience … living in Australia. [and] would recommend living in Australia and the city they lived in to family and friends’ (AEI 2008, 5–7). However, the survey did not address any student concerns that eventually led to the demonstrations by the Indian students (noting that a majority of these students were from the VET sector). The dangers of such complacency are highlighted by Glenn Withers, UA Chief Executive Officer:

These findings show that a significant majority of our international students are having fruitful and rewarding experiences, a fact sometimes overlooked in public discussion … Yet we do not and must not see the world through rose-coloured glasses. The ISB survey also confirms that there is no room for complacency and still room for ongoing improvement. For example, the report identifies mismatches between students’ expectations of living in Australia and their actual experiences. While some student expectations may go beyond what may reasonably be expected of institutions, it is acknowledged that universities do have a responsibility to manage these expectations and to live up to the actual promises made to prospective students. (UA 2011, emphasis added)

Dr Withers’ comments are significant because they recognise the direct relationship between students’ expectations and their actual experiences in Australia. Further, if these expectations are not met, students are more likely to interpret them as negative experiences. Ironically, as a marketing tool, current concepts of international student experiences often focus on the positive aspects of studying in the country, while largely ignoring the negative aspects due to the fear of tarnishing the brand of Australian education. Such a dichotomy between positive and negative experiences promotes unrealistic expectations that may eventually lead to more brand-damaging outcomes.

Dichotomy between positive and negative experiences

It is self-evident that life holds both positive and negative experiences and, in this, international students in Australia are no exception. It is not easy to establish a clear dichotomy between the students’ positive and negative experiences, due to their individualism, differing backgrounds (eg their personalities, cultural dispositions and even financial status) and varying ways of interpreting and creating their own experiences. For example, reflecting on my own study experience in Australia, I started my overseas education in Victoria without any prior knowledge of my host country. Six years later, I graduated with a double degree and first class honours, and was extensively engaged in on-campus activities, notably as President of Monash University International Student Services.

To support my living expenses I worked part-time at a local store and enjoyed friendships with my local and international colleagues. After my graduation I was immediately employed by the university as a full-time member of staff, until recently, when I won an Australian Postgraduate Award to undertake my PhD studies.

This overview of my experience as an international student might appear to be a wonderful success story, ideal to promote the Australian education system and inspire prospective students to enrol (Ong 2009). Most people would assume that I had a positive student experience in Australia. This is true to a certain extent, but success does not necessarily equate with a positive student experience and vice versa. Under this facade of success, I had a very difficult and challenging time. I suffered a mental breakdown that almost forced me to discontinue my studies. I was racially discriminated against by some of my lecturers and tutors. I was the victim of poor university administrative practices, such as receiving incorrect course advice. I was often left to my own devices and university staff were not responsive to my needs. Although I regarded my negative encounters as learning experiences, many international students would not share my sentiments (Ong 2006).

Current government policies recognise the impact of negative experiences on international students. For example, the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students (DEEWR 2007) requires all registered providers to prepare for and report any critical incidents that their international students face during their education. Critical incidents are defined as ‘a traumatic event, or the threat of such (within or outside Australia), which causes extreme stress, fear of injury’ (DEEWR 2007, 26). Although critical incidents do not encapsulate all negative student experiences, they provide an indication of the emotional pressure (stress and fear) that international students undergo when enduring such experiences. This is consistent with research investigating international students’ academic experiences and safety concerns (Marginson et al. 2010). It is significant that the national code has made provisions for critical incidents outside Australia – thus recognising that any incidents, regardless of the location, will impact on international students’ experience in Australia.

Negative experiences can be the result of unrealistic expectations. Reflecting on their past experiences and engagement with their peers, international student representatives pointed out that reliable ‘information provided prior to study in Australia and during studies is critical’ for them to formulate realistic expectations of their overseas education (DEEWR 2010). As most international students (and their family and friends) may not have any opportunity to visit Australia prior to their studies, they rely on various sources of information to formulate expectations. The recent Senate inquiry into the welfare of international students (EEWRRC 2009, 52, emphasis added) noted this importance: ‘[Ensuring] that international students have access to comprehensive and reliable information allows students to form realistic expectations of their learning experiences and life in Australia. It also assists families to appropriately budget for the cost of sending students overseas.’

The provision of information to international students by registered providers is regulated by standards 1 and 2 of the national code (DEEWR 2007). Standard 1 states that ‘registered providers [must] ensure that marketing of their education and training services is professional, accurate and maintains the integrity and reputation of the industry’. Standard 2 states that ‘registered providers [must] recruit students in an ethical and responsible manner and provide information that enables students to make informed decisions about studying with the registered provider in Australia’ (DEEWR 2007, 11–12).

This raises two issues. First, in order for ‘students to make informed decisions’ they must be made aware of the possibility of both positive and negative experiences. However, the national code does not make any provision for registered providers to make available any information on negative student experiences and the challenges that prospective students might face in Australia. Second, it also raises the question of whether government agencies and not-for-profit organisations that provide information to international students should be subjected to the national code. For example, the Study in Australia (2011c) website lists some 65 international student testimonials from various education backgrounds and states. In these testimonials the students highlight their positive experiences, their academic, employment and life success, their advice to prospective students and their willingness to promote Australian education. However, their negative experiences as students get little or no mention. Thus the website is promoting unrealistic expectations to prospective students, which comes into direct conflict with standard 2 of the national code.

This promotion of unrealistic expectations is manifested in two main ways. First, it is never possible to find any evidence of negative student experiences on official websites and publications of government agencies and education institutions. Instead, the sources they provide make only vague references to negative experiences, offering impersonal advice for international students. For example:

Bullying and harassment involve a more powerful person or group oppressing a less powerful person or group because of a perceived difference, such as culture, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or physical appearance. Bullying and harassment: may be physical … verbal … psychological … social … or sexual … Unless you take action, the behaviour may never go away. No student should face bullying or harassment. It is your right to feel comfortable and safe wherever you are, including your study institution. Make your education provider aware of any instances of such activity. If you feel threatened, you can report the matter to police. Read more at (Study in Australia 2011d)

A number of points need to be raised in regard to this approach. As discussed earlier, due to the innate and personal nature of perceptions and expectations, individual students may react differently to the same information. For these students to develop realistic expectations, they should be provided with a wider range of information, including real-life cases of negative experiences that they will potentially face in Australia. Further, most websites do not consider the cultural disposition of international students when providing advice. For example, in some of the students’ home countries, it is both culturally and legally acceptable to force women to be submissive to men. Although it is fair to say that these students are in Australia and should conform to the local rules, cultural dispositions are not something that students can change or learn immediately. Also, it may take a large amount of strength and confidence to change them. Finally, even though the information available provides international students with pathways to seek assistance, it does not instil the necessary confidence and contextual knowledge into student victims to report such incidents. Noting the naivety of some students, they may just brush the information aside without recognising the importance of the issue raised.

The second issue related to the information provided by the government is that misinformation is often dispensed under the pretext of promoting a positive student experience. For example, Study Adelaide (2011, emphasis added), the official website for South Australia, portrays job seeking as an easy task for international students:

Will it be easy to find a part-time job?

Definitely – if you use your initiative and are not too fussy about the type of work you do. Don’t just wait for the perfect job to turn up (especially part-time employment, which is often not advertised). Be pro-active: pick up the phone, knock on doors and send out your resume to potential employers. Australian bosses respond well to students who show initiative.

However, Marginson and colleagues (2010) find that international students may encounter various challenges to securing employment and the correct level of remuneration in Australia due to their residency status, voice and appearance. These challenges may be more prominent in regional areas because of limited work opportunities. However, these challenges are not clearly expressed to international students. The students may have the perception that they could easily secure part-time jobs to fund their education and living expenses. But when they arrive in Australia, those hoping for a part-time job are soon disappointed and may be forced to undertake low-paying jobs – normally below minimum wages and offering cash – to supplement their education and living costs. This represents a blatant failure to take account of the challenges that international students face. Moreover, such practices should be banned under the national code, as they are unethical.

This failure to take account of negative experiences could be addressed by examining more balanced real-life case studies. If government agencies and education institutions are willing to share positive student testimonials to encourage prospective students to enrol, they should also provide case studies of negative testimonials, such as bullying, to present students with realistic expectations of what their education and life in Australia will be like. Agencies and institutions must realise that international students have a self-defining element within the Australian study experience and they will not be able to provide all with consistently positive experiences. Balanced testimonials play an important role in better explaining the total and real study experiences to international students, and allowing them to make informed decisions about their overseas education. Setting up a dichotomy between positive and negative experiences within the concept of Australian international student experiences helps no-one.


As argued in this chapter, the international student experience is a concept that has been manipulated historically by government agencies and education institutions to suit their own needs, with limited consideration for the students’ actual needs. This can be partially attributed to the commercial mindset of government agencies, which refers to international students as consumers rather than as students. It can also be attributed to their temporary migrant status, as they don’t have any voting rights to influence government policies. This was notable during the 2010 federal election, when promises were made by both parties to stakeholders in the mining and tourism industries, but none to international education, which is the fourth-biggest earner. It seems that their concerns will remain largely ignored unless a threat to the lucrative sector is imminent, which is what happened in the case of the attacks on Indian students in 2009. The attacks forced the government to make changes and seek the advice of international students (notably with top delegation visits to India and the establishment of an international student roundtable and ministerial taskforces in some states). What remains to be seen is whether such consultation provides the model for future interactions between policy makers and international students. It would offer the students direct involvement in shaping their experiences in Australia.


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

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen