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AIEC – There’s still work to be done on diversity

The annual Australian International Education Conference focused on how the international education sector must ‘embrace diversity’, as educators, agents, providers and government bodies met in Hobart, Tasmania.

AIEC diversity themeThe closing speaker of AIEC was Australian-Sri Lankan comedian Dilruk Jayasinha

AIEC showed that the sector is working to include more people from many different backgrounds, in international education

“It’s our very diversity that is our strength,” said IDP CEO Andrew Barkla, directly after the traditional welcome to Country opened the week’s proceedings.

But talk of global politics was also prominent during the plenary talks and various sessions that followed.

Chris Ziguras, President of IEAA, namedropped both President Trump and French National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. By the end of the conference, however, it would be domestic politics on delegates’ minds.

The biggest story of the week by some distance was the announcement by Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, of a new mandated ELICOS benchmark for international students who arrive in Australia on a pathway program.

The framework was not the issue here, but the perceived lack of clarity had the effect of sending whispers scurrying like mice around the conference floor.

Brett Blacker of English Australia was quick to send an email to members, reassuring both providers and agents that despite incorrect coverage in the mainstream media (notably, The PIE News was lauded for its accurate article), the new framework is not an indication of poor standards or a problem with ELT in Australia.

In a joint statement, key stakeholders in Australian ELT said the changes are to ensure quality standards are upheld.

“It is important that potential students understand this will not make it harder to study in Australia”

“The main change amends the definition of an ELICOS course to bring all registered intensive English language courses within the scope of the ELICOS standards.”

“It is important that potential students understand this will not make it harder to study in Australia,” they added.

The theme of ‘embracing diversity’ was echoed around Hobart with rainbow flags in the windows of many businesses, and even lighting the conference stage at points. Australia is in the midst of a plebiscite on marriage equality.

But in the face of global intolerance and opposition to diversity, the delegates at some points felt like this was an uphill struggle.

The news that President Trump had declared the USA would leave UNESCO, for example, made one American delegate feel the need to apologise for their President’s actions.

But delegates, speakers and presenters made the point that nationalism can surely only be fought by internationalisation, and embracing the differences international students both bring to a host country, and experience there.

Speakers and presenters made the point that nationalism can surely only be fought by internationalisation

Sports, art and cultural inclusivity in one Brisbane-focused breakout session showed the wide breadth of activity that Australian educators and service providers are developing – to share the power of international study, but also the importance of Australia’s indigenous communities and cultural activities.

The Queensland chapter of the Australian Rules football league, the AFL, is active in recruiting international students to programs to both play and coach the sport.

It is one of many attempts to make international students feel part of the Australian community, rather than as an ‘other’ in society, who return to their home country after their period of study.

These projects are based on inclusivity, but the work needs to address the factors behind a lack of diversity as well, according to keynote speaker Helen Turnbull. Her talk on unconscious bias (the idea that we all hold prejudices, even if we don’t realise it) was perhaps the most well-attended of the week.

Turnbull made delegates think (and laugh) about how they view the world, and those arriving in Australia to study.

The final keynote speaker of the conference was Australian-Sri Lankan comedian Dilruk Jayasinha, who spoke to the realities of being an international student in Australia. From cricketing rivalries, to trying to stand out in interviews, it’s clear the rough will always come with the smooth when migrating for study.

But his parting advice was also a good summary of the week in Hobart: “Being different is okay. So use it”.

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