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

A home away from home?

Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen

Monash University

Monash University is a magnet for international students, both in its various Australian campuses and in those outside Australia, such as Monash South Africa. Whereas roughly one-quarter of all students in Monash’s Australian campuses come from abroad, the proportion of cross-border students at Monash South Africa is around three-fifths.

Monash’s heavy involvement in international student registration is, of course, part of broader global developments, in which several influences have combined to enlarge inter-country higher education student movement. Chief among these influences is greater mobility. Also, governments in immigrant-receiving countries, notably in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), have sought to attract international students for two reasons: first, to bolster flagging tertiary education sector incomes and second, to procure ‘two-step migration’, that is, the retention of overseas students after graduation to supplement scarce skilled-labour supplies. These two reasons help to explain why Monash University on its Australian campuses has come to encourage and depend on international student registration. But there are also other reasons. Until 2010 the Australian Federal Government’s visa system was designed to facilitate overseas-student post-graduation permanent residency in Australia. By contrast, the circumstances creating Monash South Africa’s proportionately heavier dependence on cross-border students are very different: they are determined largely by its status as a private tertiary-sector agency, unsupported by government.

Monash University’s internationally outward-looking disposition and structure enables instructive comparisons between student experiences and educational issues in their different locations. Consequently, as part of its ongoing research interest in this field, the Monash Institute for the Study of Global Movements joined in 2010 with Monash South Africa and the Monash Faculty of Education to mount a conference, ‘Home Away From home? International students in Australian and South African higher education’. This followed the highly successful 2009 partnership between Monash South Africa, the institute and the faculty that produced – also through Monash Publishing – an edited volume entitled Closing the Gap in Education? Improving Outcomes in Southern World Societies (Snyder and Nieuwenhuysen 2010).

As a result of the discussion and collaboration enabled by the conference, a number of people were invited to work on a book dealing with some of the issues raised and A Home Away from Home? was retained for the title. In this book we have taken the opportunity to review and analyse the comparative issues pertaining to overseas students in South Africa and Australia, with some special reference to the Monash experience. The enterprise is of particular importance, since the increasing dependence of tertiary institutions on income from international student registration means that higher education today is more likely to be evaluated through the application of business and marketing principles than, as previously, by its contribution to the public good, a precept that is challenged by several authors in the volume.

The character of higher education experiences in many countries, including South Africa and Australia, has also been dramatically changed by the increasing diversity and cosmopolitanism associated with the flow of students from a range of countries.

The distinctive collection of chapters in A Home Away from Home? is intended to enhance understanding of the complex issues associated with international education at a time of rapid globalisation. The volume comprises a diverse range of authors: students, established scholars from various disciplines, administrators and media personalities. Drawing on a range of social theories and practical experiences, the contributors analyse key issues that have been the subject of close research attention in the field.

The comparisons between Australian and South African higher education in this book follow an earlier volume (also emerging from a Monash South Africa – Institute for the Study of Global Movements conference), which dealt with the topic more broadly. Its title is Southern Worlds – South Africa and Australia Compared (Nieuwenhuysen and Dunstan 2010). As in those general comparisons of South African and Australian contemporary and historical conditions, so in the analyses of higher education in this book is race at the forefront in both nations.

The foundation for the major themes of the conference, and for the book, was provided by two keynote contributions. The first was delivered by Professor Crain Soudien, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Town, and the second by Professor Simon Marginson, from the Centre of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. They both considered international education from a broad perspective, taking account of the historical, political, economic and cultural conditions that have contributed to shaping the contemporary issues that confront South Africa and Australia. Despite their dramatically different histories, higher education institutions in the two countries are trying to find effective ways to deal with internationalism, cross-cultural education, tolerance and global awareness. The chapters professors Soudien and Marginson developed from their keynote presentations open the book in Section 1.

In his chapter Soudien notes that international education, defined as both the experience of having international students and faculty, and the deliberate structuring of academic programs to engage with questions of internationalism, cross-cultural education, tolerance and a global awareness, is hardly new in South Africa. It has, however, a particular urgency today, as the country struggles to come to terms with its own national identity, its place in Africa and its global responsibility. Central to this struggle is understanding its mission. Soudien considers three facets of the international education experience in South Africa: the semester study-abroad programs of a number of American universities; the building of international partnerships involving staff and student exchanges in South African universities; and the making of a curriculum across an international setting involving a South African university. The author asks what challenges and opportunities have arisen in each of these three contexts.

With a focus on Australia, in his chapter Marginson documents how Australian international enrolments in higher education grew by more than 12 per cent per annum from 1990 to 2010 before the sharp fall in numbers that began in 2010. This change has been triggered largely by official restrictions on migration numbers. The Australian experience illustrates a number of issues confronting international education: (1) the strengths and weaknesses of a commercial approach to higher education; (2) the potential tensions between education export policy and the teaching missions of universities; and (3) the potential conflicts between immigration and education export policies. A major limitation of the Australian approach, similar to that of other education export nations, is the ‘othering’ and subordination of international students. Mobile non-citizen students experience rights and entitlements inferior to those of local students and are characteristically treated as ‘in deficit’ in the classroom. Student security is defined narrowly in terms of the protection of consumers from fraud and the bankruptcy of providers. One improvement would be to develop a less nationally bordered approach to mobile student populations and expand citizenship policies to handle temporary migrants and underpin short-term movements of people with global protocols.

Section 2 presents the voices of three students, two from South Africa and one from Australia. The authors consider historical influences and developments, but also contemporary factors integral to the student experience. Naureen Khamisa, a Masters student at Monash South Africa, contends that one of the most common reasons why students fail in tertiary study in Monash South Africa is because they cannot achieve an adequate balance within their lives. She suggests that one of the main tasks facing societies trying to increase successful participation in higher education is to reduce the failure rate as well as the number of under-achieving students. With the pressures of work, exams, study, employment, legal issues and responsibilities at home, international students find it particularly difficult to achieve a balance between what they have to do and what they want to do. It is important, she argues, for international students, who may have just come out of the structured and familiar environment of high school, to understand basic time management to prioritise goals, lead an organised life, advance towards their careers and also reduce stress. Khamisa considers some of the issues international students face while striving to maintain a healthy work/life/study balance and makes recommendations designed to ensure that the balance is achieved.

In her chapter Shibu Singale, a graduate assistant at Monash South Africa, observes that Monash South Africa has become a popular destination for students from across Africa and beyond, with international students now comprising the majority. How these students are incorporated within the Monash community is her focus. As with all migratory contexts, integration and belonging have become crucial to understanding the social architecture of the institution and how it affects student experiences. Students typically congregate in familiar linguistic groups, which often reflect their countries of origin. With this trend there is a tendency towards national coalitions on campus. Where these collectives have a large membership, it influences the form and function of student activities. Singale considers the influences of diaspora on the social, educational and political experiences of students at Monash South Africa. She argues that diaspora creates friction between the interests of large and powerful groupings and their smaller counterparts. She suggests methods to better facilitate the international experience at Monash South Africa.

Danny Ong, a PhD student at Monash University in Australia, describes the international student experience from both a personal and a more general perspective. Ong highlights the challenges that students in Australia face and how these shape experience. He observes that the notion of the international student experience was first used in the 1950s, during the Colombo Plan period, with a focus on preventing overseas students from becoming communists. In the 1980s, with the commercialisation of international education, strategic efforts were aimed at promoting Australia as a choice education destination by meeting the specialised needs of overseas students. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, in the light of the negative media coverage and pressure from overseas governments, the international student experience now takes into consideration students’ off-campus welfare. In Ong’s view, over the past 50 years the notion of the international student experience has evolved according to the needs of the host country and its educational institutions, not the needs of overseas students. The result is that overseas students often have very limited opportunities to define their own experience, due to innate restrictions at different levels: (1) government; (2) institution; and (3) community. To establish the host country as an authentic ‘home away from home’, Ong argues that there should be better platforms for overseas students to learn and adapt so that they can succeed in their careers and prepare for the challenges of the workplace.

Section 3 focuses on social and cultural interactions between the local and international student bodies, and also within the wider community. These interactions are explored through two main lenses: racism and multiculturalism. Each chapter deals with aspects of racism in Australian higher education; together they reflect its troubling rise in recent years.

With a focus on the issue of violent assaults against overseas students in Australia, Andrew Markus, of Monash University, asks whether Australia is a racist society, exploring this question through a forensic examination of the available evidence. Drawing on the findings of the Scanlon Social Cohesion Survey, which he directs, Markus notes that since 2008 the issue of violent assaults on overseas students in Australia has been much in the news, both domestically and internationally. Public protests against violent attacks have been held in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and the incidence of violence has strained relations between Australia and India.

A number of emotive articles and news stories in the Indian media have depicted Australia as a racist society and students have been urged to boycott the country. Markus examines a range of sources to help explain the violence that has occurred. He considers general levels of violence in Australia and survey data on public perceptions of crime. He then evaluates evidence on the extent of violence experienced by international students and the survey work that has explored student perceptions. A number of racially motivated attacks are documented, but it remains to be established that the number of incidents involving overseas students is disproportional, given their large numbers, residency in regions with relatively high crime rates, and employment in occupations that require that they work late at night, meaning that many have little choice but to use public transport at late hours.

In his chapter Stepan Kerkyasharian, Chairperson of the Community Relations Commission of New South Wales, reflects on international education and the principles of multiculturalism. Kerkyasharian notes that international students are an integral part of the cultural, social and economic fabric of Australia’s multicultural community. However, as temporary migrants living in another country, international students can also face a range of cultural and economic difficulties that impact on their educational experience and have broader implications for community relations, both within Australia and beyond.

Kerkyasharian considers the international student experience and the internationalisation of Australian higher education from the viewpoint of Australian multiculturalism. In New South Wales multiculturalism is a public policy defined and implemented under the Community Relations Commission and Principles of Multiculturalism Act 2000, which not only recognises the human rights of migrants and ethnic minorities, but actively promotes cultural, linguistic and religious diversity as a valuable resource for the whole community. Kerkyasharian provides an overview of the principles of multiculturalism, their implementation by public institutions and their contemporary significance to Australian universities. He details current government initiatives to improve the international student experience in Australia, including those undertaken by the NSW Premier’s Council on International Education and the Council of Australian Governments’ International Students Strategy for Australia. He also suggests some broader applications of the principles of multiculturalism for the promotion of intercultural understanding, active citizenship and the production of global knowledge in Australian higher education institutions.

A journalist and presenter of SBS TV’s World News Australia, Anton Enus considers in his chapter the topic of overseas students and racism in Australia. Enus examines the ways in which the media in Australia have dealt with the violent attacks on international students. He refers especially to the attacks on Indian students in 2009 and 2010, which focused media attention internationally on Australia, much of it negative. A young student, Nitin Garg, became, in a sense, the face of the debate swirling around racism and nationalism. Enus explores the rationale behind this kind of reporting and examines the relationship between racism and sensationalism against the backdrop of election-year politics.

Section 4 focuses on cross-cultural teaching and learning. In their chapter Ilana Snyder and Denise Beale, of Monash University, explore the role of English in international education, suggesting that the role deserves more attention. Over the last 50 years the number of English speakers has quadrupled to more than 1500 million worldwide. However, the rise of English as a global language has been neither natural nor neutral and the consequences for international students have not necessarily been to their advantage. Snyder and Beale provide a brief history of the global spread of English in recent centuries. They discuss different explanations of why English emerged as a global language and examine its role in contemporary international education in the context of changing global conditions, with particular attention to assessment. The authors conclude with an argument for linguistic pluralism as a productive approach for the future in both South Africa and Australia, as well as more widely.

In his chapter Laurence Shee, of Monash South Africa, explores the need to implement a cross-cultural teaching and learning program at his university. Shee notes that Monash in Australia is one of the world’s leading international universities, drawing students from diverse cultures across the world. The Monash campus in South Africa, established in 2001, offers a range of educational programs at undergraduate level and, since 2010, higher degrees by research. Monash South Africa attracts students from almost 52 different countries, but predominantly from Africa and South Africa. In response to the challenge of teaching and supervising research within a cross-cultural context, Shee suggests the implementation of a cross-cultural teaching and learning program for academic staff and students. He makes several recommendations for how this goal might be achieved.

In her chapter Thobeka Vuyelwa Mda, from the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC), notes that the past decade has seen a significant increase in students from the rest of Africa registering in South African higher education institutions. At HSRC not only are these students appointed as interns, together with South African students, but one of the Human Sciences Research Council Act 2008’s objectives is to help build research capacity and infrastructure for the human sciences in the republic and elsewhere in Africa. Since the promulgation of the Act, HSRC has set a target for interns from the continent to form 25 per cent of the total number of interns at HSRC. All interns must be registered with local universities to qualify. On the surface the African students from outside South Africa are high achievers and very resourceful compared to local African students. But Mda asks a number of questions about the students: Does this apparent success impact on their interactions with South African students? How do these non-South African students describe their experiences in the South African education system? Finally, what are the benefits of this academic movement, and for whom?

Where to next?

International student movements bulk large in aggregate highly skilled migration flows and promise to be of expanding importance in the future. A Home Away from Home? is concerned with two southern world countries, but the implications of its messages are relevant across the globe.

There is a fundamental formal difference between today and yesterday in the movement of international students. In previous decades overall numbers of students moving abroad for education were smaller, and were based on a very different set of presumptions when compared with the world today. Whereas it is true that a considerable number of international students in the past would end up remaining after graduation in the countries in which they had studied, much cross-border student movement is now based on the explicit intention of seeking permanent settlement, a development that is often welcomed by the receiving country.

But whether it is for temporary sojourn to study or with a view to eventual permanent settlement, the presence of large numbers of students from across international borders raises both opportunities and challenges for the host and sending societies. A Home Away from Home? highlights many of these issues. Of particular importance are the 18 provisions proposed by Simon Marginson as global protocols for the treatment of international students.

The intrinsic difficulties facing cross-border students in Australia and South Africa raised in this book include:

  • financial hardship, which makes them vulnerable to labour market exploitation
  • exclusion as a category from definitions of those groups in society requiring specific protection
  • a sense of isolation and ‘otherness’ from the new societies in which students find themselves and subtle or direct racist treatment
  • difficult transitions in language acquisition and adaptation to different modes of learning and teaching
  • an absence of formal affirmation by government of human rights for international students
  • inadequate arrangements for affordable transport and appropriate, reasonably priced and satisfactory accommodation
  • the need for strengthened research activity on the experiences of students and, more generally, their position during their student days and beyond in culturally diverse societies; not enough is known about the composition of cross-border student populations in South Africa and Australia
  • paucity of research into the consequences of international student movement for the sending countries; there is a wealth of information that needs to be uncovered by scholars, and analysed.

A Home Away from Home? provides a useful base as a two-country study of international students, but points to the urgent need for further research and monitoring of this subject in Australia and South Africa, as well as elsewhere in the world.

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

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen