According to the OECD, approximately five million young people are currently studying outside of their home country. By 2025 this figure is set to rise to seven million.
Each of these students has particular motivations for venturing abroad. Many are seeking “global citizenship attributes” or to better themselves academically and become more employable. Others carry with them the weight of family expectations and the need to find paid employment to supplement their living costs. Some are desperate to leave behind difficult personal and even mental health situations.
If Australia is to continue as one of the world’s top five study destination nations, then it may well be time to do a serious stocktake of the quality and extent of support services for student resilience we have in place.
When the New Colombo Plan, Australia’s signature undergraduate student mobility scholarship program, was being designed, there was a strong push to place individual Australian students into separate cities and universities throughout the Indo‑Pacific region. The initial concept was that, forced to rely on themselves, our students would have a much more character-building mobility experience. Fortunately, a different approach was adopted, and it was agreed that NCP students would study abroad primarily in small cohorts. The argument here was that, as a small group, they could provide support for one another and thereby better overcome the cultural, language and emotional challenges that often arise from living overseas.
The importance of peer support is reflected in the success of initiatives for domestic students such as the “buddy bench” at our government schools. This is a simple solution enabling students experiencing loneliness to self-identify so that other students know when to reach out and talk to them.
Unfortunately, for international students, more work needs to be done in finding solutions to help them develop strong friendship groups, a sense of belonging and mutual support. For instance, when they arrive at our international airports, an International Student Welcome Desk is often manned by volunteer fellow students, but after the initial welcome, all too often they find themselves very much on their own.
The accommodation option that has, in most cases, been chosen for them pre-arrival can sometimes set the parameters for their entire experience. If they are placed in a share house with students from their own culture, this may provide them with great peer support. Conversely, they may also find that their English language goes backwards and their life in a monocultural bubble subsequently translates into poor academic, intercultural competency and employability outcomes. This situation leads to its own stresses. In equal measure, those students who find themselves living in a studio apartment or boarding house-style room may soon find that their sense of social isolation outweighs any perceived benefit of living independently.
Then, when they commence their studies in this strange land, they can quickly discover another type of disconnection. Getting to know other students on large modern university campuses is difficult, particularly when attending lectures in crowded auditoriums or not being entirely understood in attempting to articulate an idea in a small group tutorial. They may also find entirely new approaches to teaching and learning with increased emphasis on critical thinking, enquiry and participation difficult to navigate.
Given the many challenges our international students face, their coping mechanisms may well begin to break down. If that occurs, early intervention is crucial, but if they do not belong to a cohort, it becomes all too easy for them to retreat into themselves without anyone noticing or simply asking, ‘Are you okay?’
While today’s international students may seem more connected via social media, there is a big difference between online ‘friends’ and meaningful social support. In some cases, it is not part of the student’s culture to reach out to others for support, let alone to seek professional help.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure adequate support services are not only in place but also communicated to students?
There are, of course, some wonderful examples of both education provider and government-auspiced support services for international students who feel at risk. The Study Melbourne Student Centre, located adjacent to Melbourne’s major train station, is staffed by professional counsellors who can provide access to a full range of support mechanisms and services. StudyNSW funds free legal advice through the Redfern Legal Centre. Study Gold Coast has a student-friendly drop-in centre. Many of our universities also have very effective “buddy” programs between their domestic and international students.
Unfortunately, despite some wonderful separate initiatives, the fact remains that the sector has no comprehensive oversight of which programs are working and which ones might be worthwhile rolling out on a national basis. It is, therefore, high time that we consult with the international student body about their needs, conduct a stocktake of programs that are meeting their expectations, and then lobby both government and providers to sufficiently resource this crucial area.
It is up to those of us who work in international education to ask the serious questions as to whose responsibility it is to ensure better integration of international students into their host country’s culture and way of life.
Phil Honeywood is chief executive officer of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA).Do you have an idea for a story?
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