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Australia: student mental wellbeing a concern, despite sector resurgence

Recent research has indicated the post-Covid rebound for Australia’s international education sector is well and truly underway.

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Wellbeing and safety company Sonder recently released its own ‘Agents of change' guide focusing on best practice frameworks

IDP Connect’s Emerging Futures research, the latest edition of which was released during last month’s Australian International Education Conference, suggested that Australia has seen resurgence as an international education  destination and has climbed up rankings to be the second most preferred destination after Canada. But, there are still concerns that remain.

While the research found Australia is now the close second in student preference at 49% compared to Canada’s 52%, student mental health and wellbeing remains a major concern. Some 77% of the 11,000 respondents said they’ve been affected by feelings of depression, sadness, and anxiety.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty after Covid, it has kind of turned the world upside down,” Jane Li, IDP’s area director Australasia tells The PIE.

Despite facing “increasing competition” from competitors, it is “very pleasing to see that Australia has climbed two spots”, she says.

“I can understand the feeling of isolation, the financial pressure, the pressure from family”

Australia has climbed up to the second spot from the fourth, within the span of five months in IDP’s research’s August edition, based on student surveys, in terms of being the second most preferred destination for international students.

“Improved perceptions” reflect Australia being a welcoming country, its part-time and post-study work rights, and changes to skilled migration policy.

“For onshore international students a lot of things have changed, but a lot of things haven’t changed too,” she posits.

“For example, the challenges that they face — I was myself an international student and I can understand the feeling of isolation, the financial pressure, the pressure from family in terms of finding a job and getting the return on investment, etc. have always been there…

“But these pressures have been escalated to the next level by the instability and the uncertainty brought in by Covid. [At the same time] this highlights the fact that there is an opportunity for us as a sector to support international students more, in this regard,” she underscores.

“One of the things that our team has noticed in terms of onshore international student support, is that students just want to be a part of the community. They want to know where they belong — this is what we try and address in our ‘IDP Thrive’ program. So, as soon as students arrive, we have a community and a support network to help them settle down and feel being part of a family and set them up for success,” Li highlights. 

Students onshore face challenges around feelings of isolation and financial pressures, research suggestsSource:IDP Emerging Futures Research

A key finding that is “very concerning” is the date on students’ mental health and wellbeing. As of now, universities are doing a lot, but there is a “huge room for improvement, in terms of really understanding individual students and tailoring the support provided to them”, she states.

“In fact, sometimes students really do need a lifeline.”

Wellbeing and safety company Sonder recently released its own ‘Agents of change’ guide focusing on best practice frameworks to reshape institutional wellbeing.

On the release of the document, Sonder’s head of Strategic Markets, Rodney Davis, stated that “international ranking is not the only north star”.

“Senior leaders must also focus on engaging and creating meaningful value with all stakeholders on that journey – students, staff, employers, partners, donors, community organisations, research bodies, and our broader society.

“The new style of university executive is not solely a caretaker and officiator; they are an agent of change who collaboratively and proactively co-architects a healthier institution – and a better world.”

The company has partnered with the University of Sydney to provide the institution’s international students with free access to its 24/7, professional and multilingual service for safety, medical, and mental health support.

Its app connects students to registered nurses, psychologists, doctors, and wellbeing experts “at the touch of a button”.

One of the things that IDP brings to the table, is the fact that it operates in more than 30 countries around the world and within Australia, it services a student base from more than 190 countries — this helps the organisation to be “uniquely positioned to make a difference to students’ Australian education experience”, Li notes.

She reiterated IDP’s plans to expand in Africa – it recently opened its first West African office in Nigeria – which she says will help diversify the company’s existing footprint.

Li is “really excited about the [sector’s] rebound” and the fact that international students have started “coming back onshore”.

“We have had a very challenging time for the last two to three years and our priority is to ensure that we are providing support to the returning international students and [helping make sure] that they are well settled in their new study destination. And, secondly it is to work together with the sector in rebuilding the reputation of Australia as a welcoming country.”

The Thrive program – with ‘Thrive ambassadors’ and the ‘peer to peer support networks’ – is vital for students to feel ‘supported’, ‘connected’, and ‘rewarded’, she adds.

Li says that one area that the sector could place more impetus on, at this point in time and going forward, is on “more collaboration and best practice exchange — university to university, university to government, university to agents…, and also collaboration with the service providers such as accommodation providers, etc.”

Another area which needs highlighting is the increased rates of domestic violence amongst international students, something that has “seen an increase” during Covid, according to Li.

“Covid has exacerbated the need for mental health support for international students.

“It [the mental health crisis] has gotten worse than prior to Covid and we need to take it more seriously,” Li says.

Increasing the numbers of more counsellors and student support staff from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds will go a long way in helping students feel more at ease and be better understood when seeking support.

“Not only do international students contribute culturally, but they boost jobs, and help stimulate the economy”

“Also, the support being provided to students doesn’t necessarily need to be classified as mental health support necessarily, it can be termed as a ‘confidence building’ or a ‘friendship group’ kind of thing…,” she posits.

One of the things that can help increasing the international students’ sense of belonging is more social acceptance and therefore the need for an enhanced social license.

“It is important for community awareness to be built around the significant contribution made by international students — the economic and social contribution… not only do international students contribute culturally, but they boost jobs, and help stimulate the economy. And, they are our country’s brand ambassadors.

“I truly believe that there is so much more that we can do as a sector, together,” Li concludes.

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