Column

Mad About Inequality: International Students

3 April 2019

(Content Warning: mentions of suicide and mental illness)

In 2018, there were nearly 20,000 international students, or 40 per cent of all students, at the University of Melbourne. In graduate programs, that percentage is higher and in some graduate courses, international students form the majority. These students’ fees are a significant part of the University’s total revenue.

But are international students getting fair and equal access to education in Australia? I spoke to four international students, all current graduate students at the University of Melbourne, one of whom had also completed her undergraduate at the University. Three were Chinese international students, and one was Indian.

Each student I spoke to had a different focus on the key issues facing international students, but the six main themes were: communication skills, cultural differences, racism towards international students, finding employment, social isolation and inadequate support provided by the University.

Many of the difficulties mentioned were not raised with the expectation of a solution on the part of the University or other student organisations. They are shared below with the hope that international students will see their own experiences reflected, and give local students an insight into their experiences.

A significant proportion of international students at the University of Melbourne are not native English speakers.

One student told me, “for many, English is not their first language, which makes it extremely hard to adjust in the first few months.” Another said they initially were unsure of how to respond to common phrases that Australians used as greetings, suggesting the communication difficulties they face are not about language skills, but about the cultural knowledge required to conform to social etiquette.

This might impact their ability to communicate and voice their opinions in tutorials. A student told me that one of the worst parts of her university experience was frequently having a really good idea to contribute in class, but faces difficulty expressing herself in English, hence choosing to stay silent instead.

Another student mentioned how it was the practical difficulties of having to find private accommodation and provide food for themselves that she struggled with. Whilst the University is currently piloting a guaranteed student housing programs, private rooms start at around $400 per week, which can be rather costly for some.

Another student raised the different discussion styles and academic writing conventions as an issue, saying they failed essays in their first semester until a lecturer met with her to teach her the University’s academic writing style. While Stop 1 provides some English language classes for international students, the students I interviewed did not mention involvement in these classes.

Social isolation can also cause serious consequences amongst international students, with one student informing me:

“Most international students come to Australia with the least amount of maturity and direction. Most of them leave their homes behind out of necessity or family pressure to create a better life for themselves, without knowing how to achieve any of those things. I have personally ended up talking three of my friends out suicide and urge many others to seek professional help when they can’t handle the stress.”

Two of the students I spoke to emphasised how social isolation can be a huge struggle faced by international students and possibly impact their wellbeing. Another student described how she had struggled to make friends in her masters program, which had relatively few Chinese internationals. She felt that local students already had established friendship groups. Furthermore, many of her classmates were older and had families, which made it harder to form meaningful connections with. As a result of this, she had very few opportunities to practise communicating in English during her first semester in Melbourne. Instead, she told me she turned to wandering around the CBD and going into shops to talk to the salespeople as a way to practise. The graduate students I spoke to emphasized social isolation to a greater extent than the student I spoke to who had completed an undergraduate degree in Melbourne.

One student mentioned:

“Students [tend to] stick to cultural groups which makes it really difficult to get a more diverse and multicultural experience [at] the University. Joining clubs and societies and volunteering outside the University was the only way to interact with people from other cultures.”

Another student raised the issue of mental health amongst international students:

“There are thousands of international students who slip under the radar by not being able to integrate into the campus or local community, missing classes, facing language and cultural barriers, struggling to survive in a new place, feeling alone and battling depression alone all because they come from cultures [who] believe that to fail is weak and they should deal with their problems themselves.”

A student also identified that her status as a Chinese international student had affected her studies. “It’s [particularly] obvious in Arts where most of my classmates are white local students. You need to be very progressive [for your] classmates [to be] willing to speak and work with you.”

Many international students also experience racism, with one student, who had completed her undergraduate degree here, noting:

“Universities are always much more diverse than high school, and first-year experience is so essential in that it not only affects students’ mental health but also the development of their academic competence in the upcoming two years. When joining the universities, international students themselves already expect a diverse environment, but I have seen lots of local students [who did] not [expect a diverse environment].”

A postgraduate student told me she did not feel she had experienced racism in class, potentially because her classmates were older and more mature. However, she had experienced being verbally harassed in Melbourne.

The students I spoke to also raised employment as an issue facing international students because most jobs require experience, which many of them lack. One student mentioned how her friends were getting paid $11 an hour to work at the Chinese restaurant in Union House.

One student mentioned, “employability is strongly tied with communication skills. Lots of international students struggle with finding a suitable job, especially at the beginning of their careers. Some of them resort to lower-paying jobs and even illegal ones, risking their student visas.”

One student suggested utilising Stop 1, as they carry out resume-checking services and can help students find employment. She also suggested going to networking and social events to help overcome these difficulties.

How is the University doing to address these issues and provide support for international students?

Every student I interviewed pointed out multiple ways the University and other student organisations could improve their support of international students. Accessing student services and activities provided by organisations like the University of Melbourne Student Union and the Graduate Student Association can be difficult for Chinese students as they are mostly advertised on Facebook. Although many Chinese students do have Facebook accounts, they don’t think to check them very frequently because they don’t have many friends who use the platform, resulting in a potentially self-perpetuating cycle. This suggests that student groups and organisations need to consider using other forms of communication channels that would allow them to better reach certain groups of international students, such as WeChat.

“[The University] tries to establish an effective supporting system for international students, but it is yet on the ground. It underestimates the complexity of international student groups,” one student said.

Another student said, “there needs to be better preparation and guidance provided to international students before and after they arrive in Melbourne … [The University should] let international students know that it is ok to seek help and make them aware of all the free services the university provides for their welfare beyond how it is currently done. Weekly well-being check ups for emergency cases and monthly well-being check-ups for every international student should be encouraged.”

Ultimately, social isolation and difficulty finding employment, caused by a complex variety of factors such as cultural differences and a range of communication barriers, are leading to serious welfare and mental health issues amongst the growing population of international students at the University of Melbourne. There is still a lot to be done in terms of addressing social isolation, orienting international students to a culturally different academic environment, and ensuring they are not subjected to discrimination in their studies. The University should consider these problems that international students face and strategies to tackle them. They also need to take into account the different needs and problems facing different groups of international students. As one student said:

“I wish every international student from every university in Victoria can band together and collaborate into raising the issue of international students’ welfare in Australia.”

I welcome feedback, criticism and comments, particularly from anyone affected by an issue discussed in these columns, and can be reached at madeleinej@student.unimelb.edu.au.


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