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

The role of English in international education

A case for linguistic pluralism

Ilana Snyder and Denise Beale
Monash University

‘Language rules lift bar for sector’ was the header on an article in the Australian (Lane 2010a), one in a succession of articles on ‘an “abyss” of falling enrolments from China’ (Sainsbury 2010). The article explains that from July 2011 students will be required to achieve a higher score in the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) than previously if they wish to gain entry to Australia under the skilled migration program. In another article discussing the same issue, ‘English stressed in student shake-up’ (Lane 2010b), researcher Dr Bob Birrell, from Monash University, welcomed the ‘serious standards of English’ that would be necessary to attain residency. By contrast, John Findley (Lane 2010a), who works in education and is a migration agent, described the changes as similar ‘to the use of European language tests under the old White Australia policy’, evoking the spectre of racism.

For Australian higher education institutions, which have relied on revenue gained from international students to subsidise research and teaching, such changes come as a further blow to falling enrolments. The fall has been closely associated with a rising Australian dollar and requirement of substantial sureties to obtain student visas (ABC 2010). Estimates of a decline of 40 to 50 per cent in Chinese student numbers, with many choosing to study in the US instead of Australia, are anticipated (Sainsbury 2010). Already, Monash University, with the largest number of international students in Australia, has announced 300 staff redundancies, which some see as a direct result (Collins 2010).

The growth of international student numbers in Australia has been dramatic over the past 15 years, with 543,898 international enrolments in Australian higher education institutions in 2008, both on and off shore (Gillard 2009). More than 125,000 students from China, the largest single nationality represented, enrolled in 2008 (Gillard 2009). Government policy since the 1990s has deployed visa and immigration regulations as a key tool to attract international students to Australian higher education institutions (Ziguras and Law 2006). A selection instrument for gaining permanent residency has been the score received by a student on the IELTS. The government’s changes, explained above, have raised the level of English proficiency required to gain residency beyond that which has prevailed over the past 15 years. Such changes are deeply enmeshed in local politics, but there are also global influences not featured in the Australian newspaper articles that account for recent declines in the enrolment of international students. Notable is the rise in the Australian dollar – a consequence of the global financial crisis. As a result, an education in Australia has become more expensive than in other countries (ABC 2010).

The two articles in the Australian demonstrate the centrality of English to international education and the importance the state places on proficiency in English as measured through testing. Such tests embody the view that English is a neutral set of ‘skills’ (Pennycook 1994), evidence of a high level of communicative ability, which enables students to not only complete their education in Australia but also to remain in the country as migrants to take up a professional career. Moreover, the rapid growth of international education in Australia is reflected as students from around the world move from one country to another in search of an education, a process that is enabled by, and implicated in, globalisation.

As recently as 1975, there were fewer than one million foreign students1 in the world (Vincent-Lancrin 2009). By 2008 there were over three million, the majority from China and India (OECD 2010). For many foreign students, English is not their first language. Despite this reality, in 2007, 51 per cent of foreign students undertook their studies in the Anglophone nations of the US, UK, Australia and Canada (Vincent-Lancrin 2009), suggestive of the value placed on education in an English-speaking country. While there has been growing interest in the phenomenon of international education over the past 20 years (de Wit 1995; Dolby and Rahman 2008; Kehm and Teichler 2007), the role of English has received less attention, especially from the higher education sector, which tends to see it simply as an artefact of globalisation.

In this chapter we argue that a consideration of the role of English in international education is both timely and necessary. English is currently the dominant language of international higher education, having achieved hegemonic status, but its role is little understood by many of those working in the sector. The chapter begins with a brief history of the global spread of English in recent centuries, which accompanied the expansion of Anglo-American power. Different explanations of why English emerged as a global language, ranging from linguistic neutrality to linguistic imperialism through linguistic hegemony to linguistic pluralism are discussed briefly. We then examine the role of English in contemporary international education in the context of changing global conditions, with particular attention to assessment. The chapter concludes with an argument for something resembling linguistic pluralism as a productive approach for the future.

English goes global

English has become the ‘global’ language. The claim has been popularised in recent books such as English as a Global Language (Crystal 2003) and Globish (McCrum 2010). The origins of its rise to dominance have been the subject of much critical attention (Crystal 2003; Kachru et al. 2009; Mesthrie 2006; Phillipson 1992), although the spread of English across large parts of the world is a familiar story. In brief, the colonisation activities of the British meant that English became the official language in a number of countries, for example, the US, the Caribbean, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the nineteenth century, British imperial expansion established English firmly as a language of authority in certain other countries, including India, South Africa and Hong Kong. Following the First World War, the emergence of the US as a world power and its subsequent political, economic, scientific and technological expansion extended the range and dominance of English. The depiction of English as a global language is predicated upon the concept of a globalising world, and as such it is neither universally accepted nor always celebrated (eg Phillipson 2008), in much the same way as the concept of globalisation is contested (Held et al. 1999).

‘Hyperglobalisers’, ‘sceptics’ and ‘transformationalists’: these are some of the different positions staked out on globalisation (Held et al. 1999, 3). Hyperglobalisers see globalisation as an economic process enmeshing all countries in the global market place and dissolving national borders. For the sceptics, contemporary globalisation continues the trend of strong nation states pursuing their own interests at the expense of weaker ones, trends which were interrupted by the world wars and resumed in the post-war period. Transformationalists see globalisation as fundamentally altering the world in all key domains of human activity (Held et al. 1999). For Held and his colleagues, globalisation is a ‘set of processes’ (Held et al. 1999, 16) which are transnational in scope and range, transforming human activities through the reorganisation of relationships between people, both within nations and beyond national borders.

Politics, economics, cultures and languages are affected by globalisation, which is crucially enabled by new transport and information and communications technologies (Held et al. 1999). The impacts of globalisation, however, are uneven both among and within nations, depending in part on the positioning of an individual country in the world in relation to others (Held et al. 1999). The history, culture and institutions of each state mediate global forces in different ways, but within the context of an increasingly competitive economic environment, both nationally and internationally. The spread of English predated the current moment of globalisation, but globalisation is intrinsic to its diffusion in the present day, as the language through which valued knowledge is expressed, particularly in science and technology, but, above all, in business. Increasingly, English language skills have come to be viewed as necessary for a given nation to improve its ability to compete in the global race for economic advantage, and government language policies are deployed to achieve this aim. For multilingual countries, with histories of colonisation and oppression, such as South Africa and India, the perceived imperative to develop these English skills in populations with an often continuing legacy of harm, presents governments with difficult and enduring dilemmas (Hornberger and Vaish 2009).

Governments play an important role in legitimising English as the dominant language in their own domains in two ways: through the designation of a language as official within a given country and through the promotion of a particular language as the foreign language to be taught in schools (Crystal 2003). While we note the contested terms used in English language teaching and scholarship, such as English as a Foreign Language and English as a Second Language, we have aimed for simplicity for a non-specialist audience. As more countries adopt English, as either an official language or as the only foreign language taught in schools, they extend the reach of English. In more than 70 countries English now occupies a privileged position (Crystal 2003). It is the predominant foreign language taught in schools in more than 100 countries, to the detriment of other languages (Crystal 2003). In some countries, where English is neither the first nor an official language, it has become compulsory for school children: for instance in China from nine years old, in Hong Kong from six, in Japan from 12, in Korea from nine, in Malaysia from seven, in Taiwan from six to seven and in Vietnam from 11 to 12 (Nunan 2003).

Traditionally autonomous higher education institutions, sites of authority and prestige, have also played a legitimising role when they adopt English as the medium of instruction, particularly in high status award courses such as graduate studies (Phillipson 1992). In Europe the number of courses taught in English has grown substantially, with 1300 in the Netherlands in 2007, 568 in France in 2009 and, in the same year, 727 in Germany, to attract students who might otherwise study in Anglophone countries (Vincent-Lancrin 2009). In Japan and Korea, there has been a drive to ‘anglicise their most prestigious institutions’ (Vincent-Lancrin 2009, 75). Academics from non-English-speaking countries come under pressure to publish in English-language journals, particularly in the sciences (Curry and Lillis 2004; Nunan 2003), with scholarship in other languages progressively marginalised (Lillis et al. 2010). While the purposes of such strategies vary, the result is the same: the reflexive conferral of dominance on English.

Other rationales for the introduction of English-language teaching associate it with an instrumental purpose. For developing countries, education in English has been considered by government and non-government organisations as essential for enhancing economic growth through the development of human capital (Bruthiaux 2002). Often scarce resources are redirected from other programs and allocated to the teaching of English (Nunan 2003). Further, a vast English teaching apparatus exists throughout the world, in which English is taught through private businesses, in workplaces, in private English colleges and by individuals. English has thus acquired a status that sees it being employed as another means of stratification within countries, for instance in India (Ramanathan 2008), South Africa (Hornberger and Vaish 2009) and China, where ‘English has become a gateway to education, employment and economic and social prestige’ (Guo and Beckett 2007, 118).

Popular versions that account for the spread of English assume its neutrality and ascribe attributes to English speakers, and then to the language itself, which explain why ‘English-speaking people and their culture are more widespread in numbers and influence than any civilization the world has ever seen’ (McCrum 2010, 257). This reflects a belief in the inherent superiority of English speakers, one which is transferred to the language. Such a triumphalist representation is untenable and vigorously contested by scholars who locate the language, its use and its spread firmly within political, economic and cultural contexts, both historical and current. The notion of a codified, standard English as an unalloyed good was critiqued by linguists from the late 1970s and early 1980s (Bolton 2005). Braj Kachru, Robert Phillipson and, later, Alistair Pennycook, opposed such static views that embody assumptions of both superiority and homogeny (Bolton 2005).

English or Englishes?

One such challenge in the 1980s came from Braj Kachru (1986; 1990), who posited a model of ‘world Englishes’ spreading out in ‘circles’ beyond the core English-speaking countries. Kachru rejected the designation of inferiority that was applied to forms of English other than standard. Instead, he considered standard English as imbricated with power, derived in part from its historical situation as the language of colonisers. He disputed the control over the language by the ‘inner circle’ Anglophone countries, which determined what counted as standard English through codification and English-language pedagogies (Kachru 1986). The English spoken by those in the ‘outer circle’ of former colonies and the ‘expanding circle’ of English speakers, for whom English was not their first language, he considered as different Englishes rather than lesser varieties of a single whole (Kachru 1990, 4). Instead, he argued, the use of different Englishes by people from any of the circles was equally valid and he drew attention to the agency and creativity of the many speakers of English around the globe. English in this view was not dictated from the centre, but was seen as a living language that provided a common medium for communication for people from very different language backgrounds.

Opposed to the idea of plural Englishes, Robert Phillipson (1992; 1998; 2008) regarded the spread of English and its consolidation as ‘linguistic imperialism’, built on the colonial possessions of the British Empire. The English language was imposed on colonised peoples in a process in which their own languages were destroyed or marginalised. The spread of English was thus neither inevitable nor disinterested, but integrally involved in relationships of dominance and exploitation. Those who speak English dominate through their control of resources, both material and symbolic. English itself is valorised, becoming the language of power and prestige, while other languages, those of the colonised, are viewed as inferior, reflecting a status assigned to the speakers by those in power.

While to some extent Kachru and Phillipson shared these ideas, Phillipson’s model of English is that of one language imposed on the rest of the world. In the immediate post-war period, argues Phillipson (1992; 1998), the spread of English was a government financed and driven project that provided resources to English-language teaching around the world to promote particularly British, but also later American, language and values, driving a ‘global English’ (Phillipson 2008, 4). However, as ‘education is of paramount importance in transmitting values and modes of thought from one generation to the next’ (Phillipson 1992, 28), English-language teaching professionals are also implicated by teaching models of English that privilege particular standards, thereby disguising the inherent inequalities of power involved. The issue as to ‘who has the power to impose a particular norm and why’ is of crucial importance (Phillipson 1992, 26), as these standards incorporate views of the world that entrench dominance, assisted by the development of new information technologies and new corporate practices within the neoliberal era (Phillipson 2008).

By contrast with Phillipson, whose primary concern has been the impact of English in the former British colonies, Alastair Pennycook (1994; 2006; 2007) traces the development of the idea of English as a ‘global commodity’ (Pennycook 1994, 158), implicated within the globalisation project. The growth of the English-language teaching business is directed to specific purposes, which further reinforces the notion of English as a neutral set of skills (Pennycook 1994). This notion, argues Pennycook, becomes embedded within the practices of English-language teachers around the world, entrenching western ways of viewing the world and English as ‘developed, modern, efficient and scientific’ (Pennycook 1994, 159). Concepts such as ‘liberal imperialism’ privilege the supposedly unitary entities of nations and languages; rather, languages should be considered as more fluid, ‘the products of language use sedimented through acts of identity’ (Pennycook 2006, 71). Interpolations of global uses of English flow into local situations, where elements are reworked by individual actors to make meanings that are relevant in a mobile world. Through an investigation of hip-hop music in different cultures, Pennycook (2007) explores the ‘global Englishes’ within which new identities are made and performed, including creole forms which, he argues, are inconsistent with a unitary view of English.

Each of these three views of English aimed to destabilise an accepted model of English that equated the language with progress and advancement, or deemed British or American English to be the standard against which other usages were measured and found wanting. The pluralism of World Englishes establishes the legitimacy and creativity of people for whom English is not their first language, thereby promoting equality. Linguistic imperialism imagines a dominant and monolithic English that is imposed through colonisation, displacing other languages and thereby denying the inherent language rights of the inhabitants. The enmeshment of English with both identity and globalisation proposes a model of global English, one in which English is conceived as a range of linguistic resources that are adopted by different individuals in local and situated contexts and adjusted to their purposes (Pennycook 2007). In these local contexts, global English is made and remade to fit local contexts and meanings. Thus previous understandings of English as neutral and its spread as natural can no longer be sustained. Instead, ‘the key question is the relocation of English … English should no longer be presented and taught as a foreign language, and hence as somebody else’s language, but as an additional language to be added to one’s linguistic repertoire, with the advantage of international currency’ (Saraceni 2009, 184).

From this perspective, English is positioned as being changed from the ‘bottom up’ in a process of appropriation and ownership in which meanings are absorbed from local contexts and expressed in English in new ways that are meaningful in specific contexts (Saraceni 2009, 183). These understandings have not yet been reflected in international education.

The role of English in international education

As noted earlier, the growth of international education has been substantial since the 1970s, predominantly although not exclusively in higher education. In the early to mid twentieth century, small numbers of individuals from a variety of countries, usually from an elite, studied internationally. With few local opportunities, doctoral students from Australia and Canada, for instance, undertook their studies in Britain (Knight and de Wit 1995). In the post-war period of the Cold War, international education grew as the US, the USSR and Europe sought to increase their influence through educating potential future decision-makers, primarily from developing nations (Knight and de Wit 1995). Private organisations and foundations from wealthy countries promoted and funded international exchanges of both students and scholars – closely connected with national foreign policy aims – the best known of which is the Fulbright Program founded by the US Government in 1948 (Altbach and Teichler 2001).

Foreign aid for development purposes formed another rationale for international education programs, as education was widely believed to enable economic development through building the skills and knowledge of the workforce (Brown and Lauder 1996). Nation-states were not, however, the sole actors in international education, as universities have long valued and cultivated international collaboration for the purposes of knowledge exchange, the extension of research capacity and enhancement of prestige (Porter and Vidovich 2000). International education was recognised by states as providing potential national benefits and was facilitated and even subsidised accordingly, but in the main at an elite level. The valorisation of English as the medium for education and communication was integral to these programs and strategies (Pennycook 1994).

The dependence of international education on the spread of English is not widely acknowledged, but it was a precondition to the change that took place in the late 1970s. In an increasingly competitive global environment, international education was reframed as commercial activity rather than as aid, development or for foreign policy purposes, particularly in the Anglophone countries (Knight 2004; Knight and de Wit 1995). This represented a crucial reconceptualisation at governmental level. Structural factors were one element in this shift. Changing geopolitical circumstances led to growing demand for higher education in rapidly developing countries that had limited capacity to provide it. Wealthier countries in the unstable economic climate of the 1980s tightened funding to higher education domestically and recast education as trade. As an export industry, international education could be portrayed as a net benefit rather than as foreign aid, which began to be depicted as a liability (Smart and Ang 1993). In Britain, for example, a switch to full-fee payment by foreign students took place in 1979 (Knight and de Wit 1995); in Australia the switch took place in 1986 (Smart and Ang 1993). English had become the language of international trade, business, science and research, particularly with the growth of information and communications technologies, and each country recognised that their English language education systems offered them a competitive advantage they could deploy to derive income.

For countries whose students travel to another country, the aims of nation building and building national capacity in the context of the increasing competitiveness of the global economy have played a powerful role (Naidoo 2006). The development of human capital to build local institutions and to replace the dominance of wealthier countries is another factor. The motivations of individual students and their families are also important in the growth of international education and the rise of English. Many wish to gain an international qualification that will improve their future career positions in their home countries (Naidoo 2006; Waters 2009) or provide a bridge to immigration to their country of study (Benzie 2010). That this education will be offered in English, particularly in an English-speaking country, has been assumed to be a determining element in the choice of destination (Altbach and Knight 2007; Collins 2008; Naidoo 2006).

As the majority of foreign students and their families now finance their study, they are ‘therefore the largest source of funds for international education – not governments, academic institutions, or philanthropies’ (Altbach and Knight 2007, 294). Further, as most foreign students move from developing countries to wealthy countries, wealthier countries ‘reap the main financial benefits and control most programs’ (Altbach and Knight 2007, 294). Higher education institutions in these wealthier countries are thus subsidised through the high fees charged to foreign students. In 2007, 85 per cent of foreign students were studying in OECD countries and 67 per cent came from a country outside the OECD (Vincent-Lancrin 2009). By contrast, only 15 per cent of foreign students study in countries outside the OECD (OECD 2009) – many from other developing countries – although these numbers can be significant in individual countries, such as India (Altbach and Knight 2007). However, these less wealthy countries generally bear the cost of tuition for these students.

For higher education institutions in the Anglophone countries, international students began to form a larger share of their enrolments and their alumni, who assisted the spread of English in their home countries on their return. Underpinned by a political and economic climate that valorises free trade, institutions have negotiated diverse arrangements in different countries. Since the late 1990s they have offered courses to students outside their borders via distance education, using information and communications technologies, opening new campuses in other countries and partnering or twinning with other institutions to provide courses (Altbach and Knight 2007; Knight 2004). Many of these universities are capitalising on their English-language status to offer such courses and to maximise their income. Australian universities alone offered 1600 programs abroad in 2003 (Vincent-Lancrin 2009). In 2007, more than 25 per cent of international students enrolled in Australian universities were undertaking their studies offshore (AEI 2009). As other countries develop their own institutions, competitive pressures reduce the numbers of international students who choose to study abroad and higher education institutions from receiving countries such as Australia increasingly offer offshore programs to maintain their enrolments and the revenue they generate.

With increasingly tight domestic budgets, universities from the US, Britain and Australia, in particular, have established campuses in a range of countries throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe to enhance their profiles and expand their enrolments, encouraged by governments in developing nations that wish to attract investment. European universities also are expanding their connections (Altbach and Knight 2007; Eckel et al. 2007). The OECD (Vincent-Lancrin 2009, 85) reports that there are ‘82 foreign campuses … which award qualifications from the foreign institution’, the majority of these from the Anglophone countries. Other types of arrangements exist, including intra-regionally in Asia (Altbach and Knight 2007). Increasingly, private for-profit firms are selling educational services in English for international students both abroad and in their countries of origin, often with little scrutiny or adequate accreditation (Altbach and Knight 2007). International education is thus reconfigured as transnational mobility, a flow of people impelled by globalisation rather than by government policy.

English in higher education

English plays a central role as a medium of instruction in many of these newer arrangements, as it does in Anglophone countries, yet the active involvement of states in such activities is often overlooked. However, nation-states are crucially involved. The establishment of new institutions and new courses in other countries necessitates the endorsement of states at every level: the entry and exit of people; the international movement of funds; the certification and authorisation of institutions; the enforcement of contracts (Marginson and van der Wende 2009). As with the role of English in schools, by approving and accrediting such arrangements, national governments legitimise the provision of English-medium instruction, thus endorsing the view, already current, of English as the global language. New programs and new campuses in other countries offer an apparently more prestigious and international education that can all too easily displace education in other languages, but that may not provide the education they promise. Choi (2010) documents the case of a Chinese university in Hong Kong, which moved to adopt English instead of Chinese as the language of instruction to position itself as an international university, placing its areas of expertise at risk. Far from disrupting the role of English in the academic world, new international arrangements reinforce and extend its scope.

Embedded within the use of English in higher education, including in these international contexts, is an instrumental model of English (Choi 2010). The tests that determine international students’ admission to a higher education institution where the medium of instruction is English are TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System). These tests act as gatekeepers to institutions, but also to citizenship, as the newspaper articles at the start of this chapter suggest (Benzie 2010; Johnson et al. 2005). As specific-purpose tests – that is, as tests of English for academic purposes – they embody standards based on American English (TOEFL) or British English (IELTS) (Phillipson 1992), which implicitly valorise native speakers in contrast to global English speakers, thus positioning them in ways that potentially inscribe inferiority (Rubdy and Saraceni 2006). Yet, at the same time, the instrumentalism of the specific purpose suggests that the testing is sufficient: proficiency is measured and assured.

However, acceptable academic writing also incorporates norms, including cultural ones related to the construction of argument and linearity, for instance, which vary considerably between cultures. These norms are seldom acknowledged, let alone made explicit, in higher education institutions (Clyne and Sharifian 2008). As ‘academic writing is central to a student’s success in higher education’ (Arkoudis and Tran 2007, 158), the failure to understand the complex nature of the linguistic and cultural resources required of international students creates inequities unless pedagogy and support sufficient to their needs are provided.

Implications for higher education

To date, the field of international education has not drawn significantly on existing understandings of English and its place in higher education. But contemporary work in the area of models of Englishes and the politics of language policy offers salutary insights. As English becomes ever more entrenched as a medium of instruction in higher education around the globe, the instrumentalism of that approach raises significant concerns. On the one hand, the Anglophone countries in particular are deeply implicated in commercial models of higher education, capitalising on their control of English to deliver courses that aim to generate revenue for individual institutions (Vincent-Lancrin 2009). The temptation to deliver courses that match a certain level of English proficiency, perhaps at a lower scale on the TOEFL or IELTS, is ever present, with the risk for the students a lower quality qualification. On the other hand, the danger of such English-medium instruction displacing local institutions entails the risk of losing valuable national, linguistic and cultural knowledge (Choi 2010; Curry and Lillis 2004).

Yet as higher education institutions move programs and campuses abroad, the possibility exists for them to play a different role. As conservators and creators of knowledge, as traditionally international in scope, and as the educators of generations of students, including English-language teachers, higher education institutions can choose to adapt to local conditions internationally, to adopt policies that protect and preserve instruction in languages other than English, and to ensure that they are given equal status. In local contexts they can adopt more pluralistic models of English-language instruction that raise awareness in local students of different ways of seeing English. Lee and Norton (2009) describe one such model in a South African university in an MA program. Students from different language backgrounds, including English, worked together to develop a multi-literacies pedagogy that valued and promoted linguistic diversity in ways that enabled children to take ‘ownership’ of English and add it to their language resources (cf Saraceni 2009).

The history of the global spread of English demonstrates the power of institutions as a force in disseminating and enforcing language standards that most advantage them. The rapid growth of new English-dominated campuses and courses makes reconsideration of the role of English, with the aim of embedding a more pluralistic approach, an undertaking requiring urgent attention.

The future

Despite diverse motivations and intentions, the development of international education over the past decade has been promoted eagerly by governments around the world. Overwhelmingly, international education in this period has benefited the wealthy nations. As the newspaper articles at the beginning of this chapter suggest, such state support of international education within national borders is not necessarily guaranteed. However, at the same time, growing numbers of countries whose students have been educated abroad have concentrated on building their own capacity. This may well be the catalyst for both a shift in the role of English and in the direction of international education. Just as Australia and Canada, at different times during the twentieth century, were able to offer higher education to their citizens, including over time at the doctoral level, so too will other countries. Already the proportion, if not the number, of foreign students attending higher education institutions in the Anglophone countries has declined from 72 per cent in 1998 to 51 per cent in 2007, even though the proportions of international students have remained stable in that period (OECD 2009). While English may still be valued as a medium of instruction in the future, the reign of standard English is not assured.


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1 The OECD (2009, 66) categorises foreign students on the basis of ‘their nationality … international students are identified by their previous country of study or their residence’.

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

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen