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Why Australians want less foreign students

Australia’s international student numbers are proliferating, but a recent UNSW survey has revealed that Australians aren’t exactly thrilled about it. Sharon Dong and Amy Focic asked why.

Gong Shu Yi has been studying at UNSW for three years. The Chinese national was seeking a different environment to study in, and two friends recommended Australia for university. But an “unpleasant” experience of racism with a domestic student has left her disheartened.

Ms Gong and her classmates were organising themselves into groups for an assignment when the incident occurred.

“An Australian student sat next to me, and I’m pretty sure she knew that my English is not bad which means I can pretty much understand everything that she said.”

“And we’re sitting next to each other, so no matter how loud or not, I can still hear her clearly… and she said, quite loudly, with a smile on her face, she said she wished there were no Chinese (students),” Ms Gong recalled.

International students made up 38% of people attending a university or other tertiary education institution in Australia according to the 2016 census. These statistics meant Australia had the third highest number of international students in the world at that time. In 2018, international student enrolments in Australia were at their highest with almost one million enrolments, compared to roughly half of that number a decade ago, according to the Department of Education and Training.

But despite our international student numbers being at an all-time high, a recent survey by UNSW has revealed that Australians think we should be limiting, not increasing, our intake.

The survey, led by corporate communications consultant Stuart Snell, found 54% of Australians want to restrict the amount of international students that are accepted here. 

In the 18-34 years old age bracket, that number went up to 62%.

These results beg the question: why do Australians feel this way?

Unfortunately, survey respondents were not asked why they answered the way they did, as the survey was needed only to look at “higher level attitudes.”

Migration has been a hot-button issue in the public forum in the lead up to the impending federal election. Mr Snell believes that politicians have jumped on this to sensationalise international students as an issue, therefore potentially misleading public opinion.

“Don’t forget, a lot of the discourse has been, in the last six or so months in particular in the lead up to this poll, has been effectively in an election environment. We are coming up to a federal election, so a lot of politicians are saying things to generate headlines,” says Mr Snell.

“You know you look at Pauline Hanson and some political parties, they whip up a storm. And that is for their benefit, not necessarily around genuine public policy discussion,” he says.

Mr Snell also made the point that higher education institutions have been accepting foreign students for a long time. While acceptance levels are at their peak, he believes political discourse has over-exaggerated any issues that international students may pose and says that foreign students are very advantageous to higher education.

“Firstly, it introduces diversity into a higher education environment. Secondly, it provides a great opportunity for Australia to benefit more broadly from having more foreign people interact with Australia and learn here in Australia, and potentially even work here in Australia. And thirdly, universities do need to generate income.”

These sentiments were echoed by support services within the international education industry, with the spokesperson for the International Student Advisers Network of Australia (ISANA), Annette Kalczynska, saying that public views can be informed by government-facilitated debate.

“The national conversation, including at federal and state government levels, about migration and international students shapes our primary and initial opinions on this topic,” said Ms Kalczynska.

Ms Kalczynska thought that the recent UNSW survey might not necessarily reflect the reality of international student interactions with Australians, and in working for ISANA, she sees “the rewards of this international community connecting on Australia soil and the rewards available for international and domestic students, education providers and at large, the Australian community and communities overseas.”

ISANA represents professionals working in international education, but they also help any international student in need. Ms Kalczynska said that international students often do report their challenges to staff, but that to her knowledge, the majority of international student experiences are positive.

However, the experience of some overseas students tells a different story.

Yu Mo Qiu has just returned to China for his wedding. After he is married, he and his new wife will come back to Australia, where Mr Yu has been living for five years.  He completed his bachelor’s degree in accounting at Monash University, and his master’s degree in finance at the University of Sydney. Mr Yu and his fiancé are now both permanent residents of Australia, however it wasn’t always this rosy when Mr Yu was an international student here.

“To be honest, I didn’t make any local friends during all those years.”

“I guess we don’t have things in common, culture, feelings. The feelings about study life in Australia,” he said.

When asked why Australians may have responded that they want to limit international student numbers, Mr Yu said he believes that language and cultural differences make it hard for international students to engage with domestic students. This theory may help explain why so many young people answered that Australia should slow its foreign student intake.

“Many international students’ English is not that good. Good enough to study, but not good enough to make friends,” he said.

“You know it is always easy to find something in common with others or make friends if you have similar experience. For me, it’s easier to make friends with international students or guys from China.”

As for a way to make sure there is not hostility between international students and their domestic counterparts, Ms Kalczynska says that education providers should be supporting inter-cultural awareness and learning as much as possible.

“The more we champion this and realise the value we achieve through our multicultural skills and knowledge, the more we all benefit.”

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