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

International education and the principles of multiculturalism

The social role of the university in a diverse society

Stepan Kerkyasharian

Chairperson of the Community Relations Commission of NSW and President of the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW

I should declare at the outset of this chapter that I am not a practitioner in the field of education, nor am I affiliated with any particular university, but my career as a public servant demonstrates my deep commitment to the field of multiculturalism. In this chapter I consider how multiculturalism relates to international education and to the broader social role of the university.

As a bureaucrat my work relates to the roles and functions of public institutions in a culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse society. In my home state of New South Wales, Australia, it is the statutory function of the Community Relations Commission – my agency – to promote community harmony and assist and assess the performance of public institutions in implementing the principles of multiculturalism. This includes, among other things, promoting the cultural and economic benefits of diversity for society as a whole. The management framework we use in this capacity is called the Multicultural Policies and Services Program.

In a recent review by the University of New South Wales our program was recognised as ‘a world class system of multicultural accountability and governance’ in comparison to other models around the world (Whelan 2009). Critically, this system is underpinned by an Act of Parliament – the Community Relations Commission and Principles of Multiculturalism Act 2000 (NSW Government 2011a).

New South Wales is among the first jurisdictions in the world to have enshrined multiculturalism in law. This is not welfare legislation. It is not a law that bestows privileges on ethnic minorities. It is a law that upholds the human rights and responsibilities of all citizens in a culturally diverse society and promotes diversity as a strength and an asset.

This year the New South Wales Parliament reaffirmed its bipartisan commitment to multiculturalism by introducing amendments to the legislation that strengthen the capacity of my agency to meet its objectives. The continuing commitment of our state politicians to multiculturalism is really a reflection of social reality in Australia.

New South Wales is home to one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse populations in the world. This diversity can be simply indicated in statistical terms. The state capital – the famously beautiful harbour city of Sydney – is fast approaching the demographic point where one-third of the population will speak a language other than English at home. This linguistic diversity bespeaks a wealth of diversity in cultural and religious terms as well.

Immigration is the driving force behind this trend. In Australia cultural diversity is really the value-added benefit of a non-discriminatory immigration program that answers first and foremost to economic priorities. This diversity is the well-spring from which Australian universities are recruiting future generations of domestic graduates. This is the multicultural field in which Australian universities today are already playing, as they pitch for internationalisation in a globally competitive higher education market. It is the context in which I present my thoughts in this chapter.

I address this volume’s theme of ‘A Home Away From Home? International Students in South Africa and Australia’ with two assertions:

  • The place of international students in Australian higher education has to be considered in terms of the broader social responsibilities of the university.
  • The social responsibilities of the university cannot be considered apart from the issue of cultural diversity.

Straightaway we can relate this issue to a much older debate about the role of the university. On the one hand we can see the university as a nation-building institution producing a competitive, skilled national workforce and the research to support it. On the other hand we can see the university as a resource for advancing human knowledge and producing good citizens of the world.

Perhaps I am over-simplifying the matter a little. Surely, more often than not, these two visions for the university overlap. At any rate, this debate is probably as old as the idea of the university itself (Spariosu 2004). It seems that there are two points to make here:

  • The social role of the university involves pragmatic concerns of multicultural governance that are common to other national or public institutions.
  • These pragmatic concerns cannot, in fact, be separated from the ethical visions for global understanding that inspire much of the good work taking place in our universities today.

Here are some examples of what I mean.

International education is big business in Australia. The country’s education-services exports are currently valued at around A$17 billion. This makes them the nation’s third-largest export – bigger than tourism – and behind only coal and iron ore (Bradley 2008; Connelly 2010). Higher education makes the largest contribution to this total – representing around 60 per cent of the value of education-services exports nationally, with vocational education and private training colleges making up a significant proportion of the rest of export income from education services (Bradley 2008). A number of factors have impacted on Australia’s international education industry in recent times. These include the high value of the Australian dollar, the tightening up of Australia’s immigration program in response to global economic conditions, and some damaging international media coverage following incidents involving Indian students in 2009.

This has all led to some serious soul searching around the whole ethos of international education in Australia. As the rest of the chapters in this volume make clear, the issues cut across educational, economic, social and ethical dimensions of the role of the university. They have also forced cultural diversity back onto the agenda for policy makers and educationalists alike.

To get a sense of the complexity of these issues, it is important to understand how the national policy agenda relating to international higher education has changed in Australia over the decades. Most observers trace the origins of international higher education in Australia to the Colombo Plan. A centrepiece of Australian foreign policy during the 1950s and 1960s, the Colombo Plan was essentially a foreign aid scheme devised by Commonwealth countries to strengthen diplomatic ties and assist development in Asia (DFAT 2010). Aid was provided in a number of forms, including technology and expertise – but most Australians remember the Colombo Plan for sponsoring thousands of students from Asia to study at our universities.

We have to remember this was still the time of the White Australia policy. So when students from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and other Asian countries started appearing on university campuses and in the general community, they did not go unnoticed. In fact, many commentators have pointed to the Colombo Plan and the favourable impression made by the students as one of the factors leading to the demise of the White Australia policy (Davis 2009; Lowe 2010).

People tend to remember the Colombo Plan with a sense of nostalgia when they compare it to the current state of play in international education. The policy shift from ‘aid to trade’ in the export of Australian education has been described by some as ‘the Colombo Plan in reverse’. As Glyn Davis (Vice-Chancellor, University of Melbourne) has put it: ‘Instead of Australian taxpayers subsidising development in Asia, the often high fees paid by Asian students are subsidising the education of Australian students’ (Davis 2009, 755).

The idea that we are witnessing ‘the Colombo Plan in reverse’ is also associated with the so-called ‘brain drain’ effect. The linking of international education with immigration policy was supposed to contribute to Australia’s ‘brain gain’ by recruiting skilled migrants from the ranks of the international student graduates. The allure of permanent residence was held out for international students holding Australian tertiary qualifications in areas of national skills shortages.

At first glance the alignment of immigration and education policies would appear to selfishly undermine the lofty foreign-policy goals of training the future leaders of the developing world. How can this happen if the knowledge and skills gained in Australia stay in Australia and don’t find their way back to benefit the home country? How can universities maintain their role as embassies in the spread of democracy if they are really serving as transfer terminals for permanent migrants?

The ‘brain gain’/’brain drain’ theory fails to capture the reality of international migration and the global economy today. For a start, most international graduates do return home. We also know that skilled migrants who stay in Australia maintain close ties with their home countries and that migration fosters new cultural, diplomatic and economic relationships that can benefit both countries. And we know that the ‘brain gain’ side of the equation has its problems.

Indeed, the idea came under increasingly critical scrutiny as the employment prospects of skilled migrants with Australian qualifications failed to live up to the economic aspirations of the policy. With the advent of the GFC (global financial crisis), these factors conspired to see the recent overhaul of Australia’s immigration program. The re-calibration is likely to impact more heavily on the VET (Vocational Education and Training) sector and private colleges than on universities – although I’m sure the universities have had to revise and diversify their strategies as well (Connelly 2010).

To some extent it is true that the internationalisation of Australian higher education reflects changing economic conditions and political strategies designed to address them. However, it would be wrong to reduce the process entirely to economic forces. There are other principles informing the work that goes on in this area, both in the policy context and within the academic workforce. For example, the contribution that higher education can still make to foreign policy has never been lost on Australia’s politicians. As Kim Beazley, the former Labor Government Minister for Education, once said: ‘[International education] uniquely spans the cultural, economic and interpersonal dimensions of international relations. It assists cultural understanding of all parties involved’ (Harman 2005, 126).

More recently, the importance of the link between education and diplomacy has been highlighted in two far-reaching reviews of the Australian higher education sector – particularly in light of the potentially damaging impact on international relations caused by media reporting of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney, particularly in 2010 (Bradley 2008; Baird 2010).

I have been quite involved in this issue, working closely with the Indian Consulate, Indian students and the Indian media to address concerns about student safety and the broader community relations issues sparked off by the events. I won’t go into too much detail here. What I can say is that what began as a student safety issue involving international students opened up a raft of other questions concerning the social role of the university – both inside and outside the classroom. They include critical questions about duty of care and the protection of basic human rights for students living as temporary migrants in the community.

Fostering a deeper level of community engagement between international students, domestic students and the broader community is one of the key strategies we are implementing to address this issue. ‘Social engagement’ is one of the 13 NSW Government Initiatives on International Education being implemented in response to the findings of the New South Wales Ministerial Taskforce on International Education (NSW Government 2010). Another initiative is the establishment of the NSW Premier’s Council on International Education (NSW Government 2011b), of which I am a member. My agency also sits on the governing body appointed to identify priority locations and outcomes for a National Community Engagement Strategy for International Students – one of the key initiatives being implemented under the Council of Australian Governments’ International Students Strategy for Australia (COAG 2011).

These initiatives recognise that community engagement is essential to improve the social and cultural experience of students while they live and study in Australia. But there are also other opportunities opened up through this process. Community engagement offers a way of integrating multicultural principles into our learning, teaching and research practice; it provides the social basis for any real education in cultural understanding.

Community engagement

There was a time when cultural diversity only really featured in discussions of higher education in terms of learning deficits. International students were seen as facing a range of challenges in the classroom: different cultural expectations about the roles of teacher and learner; the dilemmas of intercultural communication; language issues, plagiarism, and so on (Rodan 2009). Soon it was realised that learning and teaching strategies designed to address these issues actually brought about improvements in pedagogy generally, and could benefit all students – international as well as domestic (Jones and Killick 2007).

Our universities must be doing something right in this area. We know that international students are by and large very satisfied with the educational side of their Australian university experience. And they are happy to recommend Australian degrees to other people from their home countries (Harman 2005; Baird 2010). However, we also know that international students are often disappointed with the social side of their experience in Australia. In particular, they report a lack of opportunities for developing friendships with domestic Australian students. I would suggest that this is largely due to the study and work pressures felt by all university students these days, and the sheer lack of time for forging social relationships, on or off campus.

I want to stress that I consider this to be a social issue, not a racial issue. It would be completely misleading to suggest (as some have) that the issue involves cultural or racial barriers between so-called ‘Anglo-Australian’ students and overseas students. This would ignore the fact that the domestic Australian student body is more culturally diverse than the international student body. In fact, one of the issues that surfaced during the controversy around the safety of Indian students was the lack of interaction between overseas students from India and local Indian communities.

Community engagement strategies are therefore looking at ways in which international students can be better supported by Australia’s multicultural community during their time here. And, as Bruce Baird points out in his recent review of the education services for overseas students: ‘This does not always need to be a bold step – using connections through a church, temple or mosque, sporting or musical group often helps ease the way’ (Baird 2010, 39).

Learning opportunities are afforded to all students through community engagement. Some of these opportunities have been recognised in the context of discussions on the internationalisation of the curriculum. Here I agree with Jones and Killick, for example, who argue that one of the most obvious but least utilised resources available for effective learning and teaching within an internationalised curriculum is the diversity of the student body itself – that is, the diversity of the domestic as well as the international student body.

In this context, they argue, internationalisation and multiculturalism are not two agendas, but one (Jones and Killick 2007). Australian universities are multicultural ‘contact zones’ (Singh 2005). This is a social reality. In terms of curriculum development, the role of the university is to find effective ways of converting this social reality into a knowledge resource. From this perspective, engaging diversity is not only a social project but a learning and teaching project as well.

It has been argued that learning experiences arising from this kind of engagement can be linked to the development of essential graduate attributes – such as the ability to work effectively across cultural differences (Killick 2007). Community engagement therefore has practical as well as social and ethical outcomes for graduates who, to cite Bruce Baird again, are going to ‘work and live in an increasingly multicultural and globalised world’ (Baird 2007, 37).

There are some good examples of Australian universities working to integrate community engagement strategies into their curriculum renewal programs. As one example from my own state, Macquarie University in Sydney has made the rather bold announcement that, from 2012, it will be making its Participation and Community Engagement (PACE) initiative an integral part of all its degree programs. This will mean that all Macquarie University students (in all disciplines) will be required to undertake ‘experiential learning activities’ with communities locally, in regional Australia, or overseas (Macquarie International 2011). I will be interested to see how this initiative works out. In particular, I would like to see how both domestic students and international students are linked into volunteer projects managed by local ethnic community organisations and how these learning experiences can then contribute to public knowledge about cultural diversity in Australia. I imagine the different cultural perspectives that international students might bring to bear on local issues would be of special value.

Here I return to a point I introduced at the beginning of this chapter. I mentioned that in New South Wales multiculturalism as a public policy regards cultural and linguistic diversity as a resource for the whole society. By now it should be clear that I see this policy as having direct relevance to the social role of the university. When I say that cultural diversity is a resource in higher education, I mean something more than the economic contribution made by international students – either in terms of their contribution to Australia’s export income or in terms of the importation of skills into the national workforce.

These are clearly matters of national significance – but they do not speak directly to the intrinsic value of cultural and linguistic diversity. I actually have a fairly broad vision for the role of the university in this regard. In this chapter I have focused mainly on the social and educational benefits of engaging diversity across the student body and across the multicultural community that the university serves as a public institution. It is clear that community engagement provides the necessary social basis for educating students in cross-cultural understanding.

But the university has another role to play: recognising – or rediscovering – the actual diversity of knowledge resources that the world has to offer. This opens up a whole other conversation about cultural and linguistic diversity in research practice and curriculum content, which is beyond the parameters of this chapter, but to make just one point. As Rizvi (2000) argues, in an internationalised curriculum ‘curriculum content should not arise out of a singular cultural base but should engage critically with the global plurality of the sources of knowledge’.

In conclusion, the ethical project of developing cross-cultural understanding requires a truly global approach to the production of knowledge. It means extending our research methodologies beyond the limited catchment area of ‘global English’ and its network of institutions and research technologies, including universities, scientific institutions, development organisations, academic journals and research databases (Davis 2009), an argument that is also made by the Australian social theorist Raewyn Connell (2007) in relation to the social sciences in her book, Southern Theory. It means not just learning about other cultures, but learning from them. The broader social role of the university is to foster this kind of community engagement on a global scale. This might sound like a grand vision, but the process really begins at home. We can make a good start by accepting international students as a part of our multicultural community.


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

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen