The attraction, retention, well-being and quality of outcomes for international students have become major policy and political issues in Australia and in many of the students’ countries of origin. In Australia the perceived range of environmental and social impacts of a rapidly growing international student presence has stimulated public attention. The economic contribution of international students has also played a critical role in Australia’s survival through the global financial crisis, buffering the Australian dollar and sustaining a higher level of service sector export income than almost any other nation4.

In coming to grips with the many different perspectives and interpretations of the international student situation, the institutional stakeholders need quality evidence in order to make appropriate policy decisions, and develop meaningful and effective programs. This paper draws on social science research to examine the policy environment, the students’ situations, and the responses by government, business and industry, civil society and the wider community. In undertaking this examination, we draw on current research, policy debates and the discussions held among stakeholders and academic experts convened by the project sponsors, namely the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and Universities Australia.

The three sponsors initiated these discussions in early 2010; at that time the focus was on the violence experienced by Indian students in particular, and the changes that were being flagged by the national government to criteria for residential outcomes for students completing Australian qualifications. Safety and security were paramount, though the broader social context was also flagged for examination.

The outcome of the first sponsors’ symposium in March 2010 was reported by Professor Adam Graycar5 in ‘Racism and the Tertiary Student Experience in Australia’. His paper summarised the research presented at the meeting, and concluded with a number of what proved to be controversial discussion points. The focus on reducing race-related crimes raises issues about to what extent criminal attacks on students were racially-motivated; the discussion of the tension for ‘foreign’ students between educational and residential outcomes can set these up as alternatives rather than complements; the dichotomous differentiation between VET and university programs both underplays the continuities between them and suggests an inappropriate hierarchy of importance; and the use of the term ‘foreign’ negates the contribution that international students make to Australian education and society.

The evidence presented at the first symposium indicated that the following elements need to be considered in the development of policy parameters:

  • Certain cultural groups evince a greater likelihood of experiencing racially or culturally discriminatory and demeaning events, including people from South Asia, people of Muslim faith and Indigenous people6.
  • The security of South Asian international students was affected by their need to travel late at night and often alone, and by the exposure to potential street crime because of the residence of some in localities where economic pressures have generated unemployment and social exclusion7.
  • Economic exploitation of international students by unscrupulous employers was prevalent where students had few financial resources and required more than the twenty hours per week of work during semester allowed by their visas8.
  • Economic exploitation of international students by unscrupulous or poorly managed educational service providers had generated widespread cynicism about the regulation of education among current and prospective students9.
  • While the residency opportunities introduced by the Federal government through the listing of required occupations and courses had generated a rapid rise in demand, overwhelmingly international students wanted a quality educational experience10.
  • The interstitial status of international students reduced their effective human rights, a situation compounded by economic stress11.
  • Female students are at particular risk as they are more vulnerable to physical attack, and more exposed to sexual harassment (especially at work and in negotiations over accommodation), even though they were not victims of the street crime that featured in the Victorian debate12.

During 2010 the debate was propelled by three dynamics—the upsurge in public debate around Australia’s population size and the impact on these projections of the student population; the impact of the Baird report13 on state and federal governments’ management of the international student industry and the decisions of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG); and the growing concern for the students’ human rights and the possible role of Australian institutional racism in perpetuating situations of violence, exploitation and discrimination.

Stakeholders in the international student issue include those organisations directly involved in the industry, the government, students and the wider society. Australians in general benefit from a society free from discrimination, exploitation and violence on race, culture and religious grounds; an educational system that is world class, well respected as ethical, fair and of high quality; sustained and sustainable demand for our educational services as part of our international trade arrangements; an unselfish and developmentally progressive international aid program; and international immigrants who are educated, aware of Australian values and culture, and committed to making their lives in Australia productive and peaceful.

Governments at the federal, state and local levels benefit from stable and respectful international political and trade relationships; targeted and effective foreign aid strategies; secure and peaceful communities; an educated workforce; active and productive participation by citizens and longer-term residents in civic life; a sustainable and supportable population; calm and productive inter-communal relations; and growing infrastructures that enable the benefits of scale.

Universities benefit from international respect for the quality of their programs, their research and their educational environments; continuing international interchange of students and staff in an environment untainted by racism or exploitation; community appreciation of their contribution to quality of life; and a supportive and productive teaching and learning environment.

The VET and school education sectors benefit from a safe and secure community environment; an ethical, effective, and productive range of educational opportunities; an international and local student body that engages mutually and develops critical intercultural competencies in the process; and a reputation as an education industry untainted by suggestions of corruption, inadequate delivery, and irrelevance. International students benefit from having a range of educational opportunities that enhance their skills and learning; that ensure a high quality of communication skill development; that facilitate interaction with both domestic students and the wider Australian community, both in education settings and more widely; and that show them respect and social recognition of their needs and contribution.

Australian students similarly benefit from an ‘internationalising’ education environment, from inter-cultural communication and understanding, and from institutions concerned with social sustainability. In addition the Australian Human Rights Commission is mandated with promoting racial equality and the principle of non-discrimination. The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia has a stake in demonstrating the value of social science research in articulating the complexities of social issues, and the roles that research and debate can play in developing more effective evidence-based policy outcomes.

Threats to the well-being of international students fall into a number of categories, such as:

  • failure to complete educational requirements due to the student’s unrealistic expectations or inadequate preparation14
  • lack of effective study skills and English language support from institutions15
  • group learning approaches that are incompatible with Australian individual assessment processes16
  • poor quality educational services or services that are essentially ‘scams’17
  • failure of educational suppliers, leaving students without funds and no course to follow18
  • visa breach issues consequent on failing to pursue the authorised course of study and perform at an appropriate level19
  • extortion and intimidation by criminal gangs and related issues such as incurring excessive gambling debts in order to cover fees, etc20
  • thefts and muggings21
  • racial taints and attacks22
  • loneliness and isolation23
  • financial problems brought on by misunderstood purchase and service contracts
  • mental health crises as a consequence of these pressures24
  • exploitation by landlords, overcrowding and unsanitary housing25
  • sexual harassment by employers or landlords26
  • compulsion to participate in political activities on behalf of country of origin27.

It should also be noted that the overwhelming majority of international students have reported very positive outcomes and have expressed their satisfaction with the quality and depth of education they have received. They have progressed through the educational system, gained from it what they sought, and have either achieved settlement and then citizenship, or moved on back to their countries of origin or other countries of immigration. Others have opted for what Robertson has described as ‘denizenship’, a status where they retain their citizenship in their countries of origin, and gain permanent residence in Australia, thus optimising a number of aspirational outcomes regarding their education and international mobility28.

This paper cannot canvas all these issues, and will concentrate on the relation between well-being and human rights. The project sponsors commissioned this paper to bring together a narrative that locates the issues in an historical framework, applies social science theory and evidence (especially those that address host/guest relations at the societal level), and assesses the debate about racism and human rights as it affects the system of international students’ inter-relations with Australian society. We conclude by suggesting for further discussion some policy parameters and short to medium term policy goals. We recognise that policy here relates to all tiers of government and a range of portfolios, business and industry self regulation, and civil society practices. Context can explain a great deal, as the inter-relationships between apparently disconnected processes can produce serious and unintended consequences for all involved.