Despite the large cohort of international students attending Australian universities, Australia has failed to develop engagement between domestic and international students, and as a result, students are missing the chance to benefit from a uniquely global tertiary student environment. Australian students are not being encouraged to build cross-cultural relationships, while universities are also risking dissatisfaction among international students as international students remain largely isolated in their relationships with their domestic cohort. A basic failure to consider the relationships between domestic and international students risks undermining the growth of our tertiary sector and our franchise as a provider of world class tertiary education.
Australia is widely recognised as a multicultural society: a ‘classical country of immigration’, a nation of many ethnicities and cultures shaped by diversity. Australia has its roots in its indigenous heritage and the more recent arrival of peoples from a diverse range of countries, cultures and traditions bringing unique perspectives. In recent times, Australia has also seen a rapid increase in international students intake, with Australia becoming one of the largest exporters of educational services in the world. Indeed, according to the Australian Department of Education and Training, the higher education sector alone has seen a dramatic increase in international student numbers from 125,000 in 2002 to 307,000 in 2016.
For many of these international students, the opportunity to study in Australia promises the experience of western cultural engagement and the development of English skills, most easily attained through interaction with the domestic student cohort. However, it is not uncommon for students to travel to Australia only to find themselves interacting with others from their home country or in limited cultural groupings. While desiring greater cultural interaction, students are often unable to find avenues to assimilate within or outside of the classroom, leaving many foreign students feeling alienated. Indeed in not creating a ‘shared culture’ and customising the experience, universities are commoditising their service to students and are reducing the value of the degree itself. In the long run, as competing offshore universities look to attract international students, Australian universities may fall behind if they do not foster a collaborative environment between students on their campuses.
Currently, educational institutions are failing to address this challenge and, in many cases, cultural enclaves, mostly of international students, are forming due to cultural divides. Inside the classroom, this phenomenon is disrupting learning environments, preventing fluid classroom dynamics and academic discussions. Minority groups, feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable in a foreign environment, are often reluctant to contribute to class discussion. Group assignments, which require students to actively work together are often less effective and cultural divides form within teams when students are unable to properly communicate. Many domestic students also often feel unfamiliar with international cultures and languages, and either complete the work independently or completely disconnect from the activity and others around them.
If done properly, the successful interaction of international cultures should enable campuses to unlock the richness of experience and diverse perspectives that comes with a large international student cohort. Australian students must be encouraged to actively engage with their counterparts, or else they miss the opportunity to develop cultural skills and global competency. Positioned in a multicultural Asian region, Australia must ensure that its universities are developing the right cultural engagement skills for students to allow them to participate fully in a future globally diverse workforce. Given the diverse nature of classrooms, universities have the opportunity, in a practical setting, to teach students how to work with each other, understand others and become more globally competent.
Australian students must also be encouraged to develop international networks and long term relationships across cultures. From a social perspective, students would benefit from diversifying their friendship circles and interacting with individuals that bring new experiences and perspectives. From a functional perspective, strong international networks can create future business, research and other networks which can prove significant to students over their working careers. Indeed, university alumni networks must represent the interconnection of cultures also, with students being able to draw on the diverse social capital present at today’s universities. Because of failed interaction during the past, many Australian university alumni networks are often country specific, having not been formed from cross cultural relationship building. If interaction is not facilitated while at university, then Australia will have missed a significant and unique opportunity to provide its students with these international relationships as they move into a global world.
The Australian tertiary sector must reconsider how it engages with its international and domestic students. The growth in the number of international students studying at our universities is providing Australia with a unique opportunity to give both domestic and international students the opportunity to develop strong and enduring cross cultural relationships. Our current complacent and disengaged strategies may, in the long term, undermine our leadership position in global tertiary education and more importantly leave our current student bodies with a significant missed opportunity to become engaged and experienced global citizens.