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Stop treating international students as our ATM

Opinion

We celebrate the economic benefits of international students but ignore their reality, writes Andrew Hunter, who believes sport can help bridge the cultural divide.

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Too many international students have a narrow experience of Australia, with their network confined to their respective linguistic, national or ethnic groups. They are not embraced by the broader community, but instead remain isolated.

If Australia aspires to leadership in international education and wants to enhance its position in the community of Asian nations, our approach to international education needs to change.

The experience of studying in another country should be intellectually stimulating, personally enriching, and enduringly memorable. It has the potential to provide students with quality academic and cultural experience. There is no better platform for cultural exchange, with international students immersed in a different academic, social and cultural context.

A member of a global community of scholars, students studying in foreign universities spend these golden years with peers that are on similar paths of understanding and global citizenship. Those studying in Adelaide have the added bonus of spending time in one of the world’s most beautiful and liveable cities.

But there is also a darker side to international education.

In Australia, there is a distance between our appetite to receive more students from overseas and our sense of responsibility to the growing number of students who arrive on our shores. The confluence of pressure, isolation and loneliness can have tragic consequences. Less tragic consequences include a group of socially marginalised people who leave Australia having completed their degrees with only superficial experience of our country. The learning experience is also made difficult by moderate English-language proficiency.

Earlier waves of international students had more immersive experiences. Australia was a willing and active participant in the original Colombo Plan, from 1951. Visiting students were placed in Australian communities and homes for the duration of their stay; the resultant intercultural exchange was illuminating and meaningful for both students and hosts. This is vastly different to the experience of visiting students today.

There are solutions to the endemic issues related to international education in Australia, but do we have the will to find them?

Our discourse and attitude towards international education suggests we are indifferent to students’ travails. For decades in Australia, we have adopted an economistic approach to all things, including – perhaps especially – higher education. A unique focus on international students commodifies and dehumanises them. It ignores the potential to share in enriching intercultural exchange locally, and develop a global network of young professionals with a deep understanding and fond memories of Australia.

Sport is a powerful instrument through which visitors can become immersed in the local community.

International education is vital to our economy. To South Australia, it represents a significant growth opportunity – made more important by the aborted merger between the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. To maintain or improve its international standing, the University of Adelaide will now need to increase the size of its student body, to bring the capital needed to enhance its research capacities. To do this, the international student body will need to increase dramatically.

This is an important moment in which to also consider how to improve the quality of the academic and human experience of visiting students.

Sport is a powerful instrument through which visitors can become immersed in the local community. Particularly in Australia, sport plays a profoundly important role. Earlier this year, Port Adelaide Football Club signed a three-year agreement with the University of Adelaide designed to enhance the experience of visiting students and provide internship opportunities for graduates from within its domestic and international network. The experience of international students broadens as soon as they put on the scarf of their favourite team; when they barrack at stadiums, they become part of something bigger.

An understanding of our indigenous sport, the carrier of cultural values, also enhances the visitors’ understanding of Australian culture, both good and bad. On a more common level, being able to talk about football also provides an ‘ice-breaker’ in Australian workplaces or bars. It encourages more meaningful interactions with the local community, which has a transformative effect. Sport puts all members of the community on the same playing field, as equal participants.

Hopefully, the University of Adelaide and Port Adelaide Football Club model will help change the way international education is done in Australia. We need to take seriously our responsibility for visiting students. This way, the benefits of international education will be social and cultural, as well as economic.

Andrew Hunter is General Manager of China Engagement at the Port Adelaide Football Club.

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