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A 'minimalist' university experience for international students

By Peter Kell - posted Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Hong Kong proposes to be an education hub to attract international students from around the globe. Like Malaysia and Singapore, Hong Kong is a new Asian entrant into trans-national education that is challenging the dominance of Western universities. Policy makers and universities may need to be cautious about venturing into the international arena given the recent experience of Australia. In attracting international students Australia ranks fifth after the US, UK, France and Germany; and about 15-20 per cent of Australian university enrolments are overseas students. Most of these are from China, India and the Asian region.

Since the mid 1980s there have been claims that Australian universities have “internationalised” and adopted a global focus. But it is an ambiguous response to internationalisation by Australian universities which sees a very different approach to Asia and the developed world. Asia is mostly seen as simply being a fertile recruitment site for students. Comparatively little effort is done to make regional connections in prestige areas such as research. At the same time most Australian universities, which are desperately seeking to achieve recognition in the international ranking systems, are scrambling to build links with prestigious Europe and North America universities in research and scholarship.

This emphasis on internationalisation has come at a time when domestic Australian students are subject to rising levels of debt, fewer services, higher student to staff ratios, and a general perception that the quality of the student experience is diminishing rapidly. Some observers are arguing that the expansion of international student numbers, essential for universities to meet their balance sheets, is at the expense of “local” students. This is a volatile argument, likely to trigger a racist backlash at a time when demand for student places is highly competitive.


Until recently university administrators, in an environment of tight resources, offered a minimalist response to the needs of international students with little support in areas such as language assistance, learning assistance, accommodation and employment. This minimalist approach was curiously justified as being part of an “Australian experience” which tends to contradict the claims about internationalising. This minimalist model has also triggered growing levels of dissatisfaction among overseas university students in Australia. Universities are forced to be more explicit about what services overseas can access and what they get for their money. In turn this runs a risk of creating a schism between overseas and local students where the sense of entitlement of Australian domestic students is threatened.

These dilemmas have been simultaneously swamped by the recent controversies surrounding racist attacks on Indian students. These attacks have threatened Australia’s reputation as a safe destination for students.

University administrators, policy and government have been ambivalent in their approach to this crisis, often denying the racial nature of the attacks and offering few solutions other than slick public relations campaigns. Violence against students has persisted despite the establishment of high powered task forces.

As far back as 2006 Chinese consular officials warned Australian authorities of the need to protect Chinese students against persistent racial attacks. Australian authorities have been complacent about these warnings despite clear evidence of harassment of international students in several cities. The problem is not new but pressure for action is now urgent because the perception that Australia is an unsafe destination will deter new students from coming to Australia. This has become as bottom line problem and is now receiving urgent if not belated action.

Some of the lessons for Hong Kong from the Australian experience are simple ones. There is a need for comprehensive policies on internationalisation in universities that builds partnerships rather than see the region just as a market for students. The Australian experience suggests that that cutting corners and doing internationalisation “on the cheap” will lead to big troubles in convincing students they are getting value for money.

University administrators need to be careful that internationalisation does not create a perception of a divide between local and non local students. They also need to be aware of the broad diversity of needs of international students which includes good quality academic support services that including welfare assistance and assistance with accommodation. Most importantly it students need to have a safe and secure environment free from racial vilification and physical violence.

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About the Author

Dr Peter Kell is the Director to the UNESCO-UNEVOC centre at The Centre for Lifelong Learning Research and Development at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. Peter Kell has co-edited a new book with Gillian Vogl entitled Global Student Mobility in the Asia Pacific: Migration, Mobility, Security and the Wellbeing of International Students with Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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