The Silent Agony Of The Foreign Student


This is the situation: over the past 10 years the number of international students studying in Australia has more than doubled. In the last financial year alone, more than 300,000 student visas were granted, pushing the percentage of foreign students to somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter of the Australian university student population.

That is what we know.

What is far less clear is why these students are choosing to study in Australia, what happens to them once they get here, and exactly what kinds of emotional baggage they’re lugging back home once their study visas expire.

The ugly truth is that, for all intents and purposes, the Australian higher education system is segregated. Because Australian domestic students rarely socialise off-campus with non-Caucasian "internationals", foreign students of Asian and Indian backgrounds are led to form racial cliques that domestic students perceive as antisocial and unbreakable. The exclusion is mutual, and that’s what makes an "easy solution" difficult.

It’s a truth that adds another dimension to the ongoing controversy over attacks on foreign students in Australia. Whether or not Australia is a "racist country", the fact remains that our education system — the thing that brought so many of the victims of this violence here — is failing many of these people.

I live a stone’s throw from Adelaide’s Chinatown, in a little cottage around the corner from a fishmonger’s warehouse and a little Asian grocery. If I spend the day bumbling around the neighbourhood, it’s easy to forget I live in Australia at all. There’s something delightfully cosmopolitan about the fact that a city as small as Adelaide can sustain a vibrant multicultural community.

Still, not everybody is comfortable with the large number of young foreign faces around Adelaide. (The city’s international student population hit 28,000 in 2008, and a key component of the State Strategic Plan is to double the numbers by 2014). At a recent development consultation at the University of Adelaide, a middle-aged woman named Barb took the floor and told planners, who are in the process of developing a new student hub, that, "International students always come first and I don’t like that. We need to put local students first for once. I’m not racist — I have friends who are Asian — but internationals are killing the life of this university." The planners placidly promised to take Barb’s points into consideration.

Barb is not the only person in education convinced that the Australian tertiary sector has been converted to service the lucrative full-fee-paying market.

As one exasperated Humanities tutor at the University of Adelaide explained to me, "A lot — not all, but a lot — of these students should be spending a year learning English intensively before beginning their studies because they’re arriving without understanding the language. But, as tutors, we’re told — not explicitly, but implicitly — that we need to ‘go easy’ on international students because they’re the ones who are keeping us employed. It’s very, very difficult to fail underperforming international students, because if we do, we open ourselves and the university up to charges of racism or ‘unfairness’."

Because the Australian tertiary system is supported financially by the straight-up payments provided by internationals, the argument that Australian higher education is "tiered" in favour of internationals is difficult to counter.

But it’s hard to see who really benefits from this state of affairs. It’s highly questionable whether waving foreign students through their education really helps them in the long run. Meanwhile, passing underperforming foreign students turns out poor graduates and ultimately damages Australian education as a brand.

Comments like Barb’s relate also to that sense many in the sector have that directing scarce education resources to foreign students means they are drained out of the country but Shaoming Zhu, an electrical engineering PhD student who hails from Shanghai and has been living in Australia since 2004, denies that it’s that simple. Shaoming sits on the Board of Directors of the Adelaide University Union. When I repeat Barb’s comments to him, he wants me to recognise that not all international students are alike: there’s a clear difference between those "cut-and-run" international students who "just want to study and go back home", and those, like himself, who are interesting in staying in Australia for the long haul. Governments and universities, he argues, "really need to differentiate between the two groups and try to help those who actually want to stay here".

The fact that many students make use of the well-trodden path from study to permanent residency adds another level of complexity to the issue: by studying here, many have gained the opportunity to stay here and to contribute to the country. In that sense, for many who eventually make this country their home, the exclusion they experience as part of the education system helps define their experience of becoming Australian.

Strangely, Australian universities, while they apparently assist "cut-and-run" international students by lowering academic standards, do little to help serious and committed international students where it really matters. A recent study in the Journal of Studies in International Education, entitled "Loneliness and International Students: An Australian Study", suggests that two thirds of international students in Australia experience feelings of chronic loneliness and isolation.

These students may decide to study in Australia under the presumption that Australian universities provide continual social support and numerous opportunities to develop personally and professionally fulfilling relationships with local students. The reality, of course, often turns out looking a little different: international students are provided with assistance during an initial orientation period and are then left to fend for themselves.

Even though most universities do provide some services tailored to international students, for many that’s no help at all. Eric Fan Yang — who serves on the Union Board alongside Zhu, and who similarly travelled to Australia from China to study — tells me that Chinese students, out of a culturally ingrained sense of "personal dignity", are highly unlikely to go out of their way to access this assistance. "It’s part of Australian culture to think that ‘If you don’t stand up for yourself, then you must be happy’," says Eric. "But Chinese students will not tell the university if they are having problems because they don’t know how to make complaints." Australian universities, according to Shaoming Zhu, must "actively approach Chinese students instead of waiting for Chinese students to approach them".

This won’t happen. Australian universities lack the funding required to provide all-encompassing social support to students, international or domestic. By the time they have reached tertiary level, students are expected to be able look after themselves.

Still, perhaps, considering the billions of dollars international students pump into the tertiary education sector annually, universities could try a little harder to go out of their way for internationals. When, in 2005, police discovered the dead body of international student Hong Jie Zhang in her Canberra flat and it was revealed that her body had been lying there, decomposing, for seven months, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Professor Roger Dean, denied that it was the University’s responsibility to notice Zhang’s disappearance. ACT Deputy Chief Police Officer Shane Connolly speculated that, "The movements in and out of these [higher education]institutions is regular, so maybe she was just simply not missed or people may have thought she’d gone home."

What is most disturbing is that there is nothing to suggest that Zhang was in any way unusual — she was not a loner, nor were her dealings in any way dubious. Zhang’s disappearance was not noticed for seven months because her social network — comprised largely of other international students like herself — was patchy and inadequate.

The attacks on foreign students are only a fraction of this wider picture — a picture which includes the choice we have made not to fund our own essential education sector, but rather to have it heavily subsidised by foreign students, around whom we have based a very large export industry.

Perhaps it would be simpler to look at their welfare in purely commercial terms. If we will not afford them adequate support, they may well decide they can get better value for their money elsewhere. We cannot expect to keep wringing money out of these people, while offering very little support and low academic standards in return.

In the wake of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne, international students need to know that somebody is looking out for them. Because nobody else appears to give a damn, the burden falls on universities to ensure culturally adrift internationals are faring okay psychologically. The buck has to stop somewhere.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.