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More coordinated support needed for internationals in Australia and NZ

Two thirds of international students in employment in Australia prior to Covid-19 lost all their work as the pandemic spread worldwide, new research has found.

During the pandemic, many domestic students have assisted with food parcels and other practical support via student associations. Photo: Unsplash

Over 80% of domestic students said that they were to some extent aware of the challenges faced by international students in 2020

The second iteration of the Student Voices research, published by the International Education Association of Australia in partnership with Education New Zealand, has determined that international students were more significantly impacted by the Covid-19 compared to domestic peers in Australia and New Zealand.

The paper found that the pandemic caused a disconnection between international students with their families at home, particularly around family wellbeing, separation from family and not knowing when they can go home.

The research surveyed over 4,300 international students based in Australia and New Zealand, and was conducted via student interviews and surveys, in addition to interviews with key educational stakeholders and government agencies.

Led by Robert Lawrence, principal at Prospect Research and Marketing and authored by Christopher Ziguras, associate dean, Global and Language Studies at RMIT University, the study found that 15% of respondents in New Zealand had to change their accommodation as a result of the pandemic – most commonly as a result of financial pressure. However, this grew to 28% of international students saying the same in Australia.

Students in Australia showed a slightly higher level of concern than those in New Zealand. Additionally, international students’ loss of employment was not as dire in New Zealand compared with Australia. Researchers have called for institutions to ensure contingency plans are in place.

“It shows the importance of having contingency plans in place for the unexpected”

“The disruption has really elevated awareness of social license and its absolute importance, within the context of institutions,” Lawrence told The PIE.

“It shows the importance of having contingency plans in place for the unexpected and to ensure that international students have their specific needs addressed, which means, you cannot adopt an all student approach.

“The important consideration is that domestic students, largely have a sense of history and identity, whereas international students are studying in a new environment, through a new system, and often living independently for the first time in their lives — they are from families that don’t live in Australia. This means that many [international students] found themselves alone and needing an understanding of their circumstances, not just based around circumstances experienced by local students.”

In a previous iteration of the research, over 80% of domestic students said that they were to some extent aware of the challenges faced by international students in 2020.

While domestic students “certainly meant well” and universities responded strongly and tirelessly to support international students, “ultimately this is about life’s practicalities that mattered, in the short term for international students”, Lawrence posited.

An exacerbating factor for international students was the fact that they did not receive any government grants or payments, with many losing all or some of their part-time employment.

While domestic students assisted with food parcels and through other practical support via student associations, they were not in a position to directly alleviate financial hardship, Lawrence noted.

The focused efforts on areas such as learning support, mentoring and counselling was appreciated by many international students, but was not considered as great a priority as practical hardship and day-to-day survival support.

“The study really brought home just how important social networks are, particularly in a crisis,” Ziguras explained to The PIE News.

“International students in Australia and New Zealand were very active in providing support to other students and were connected with a wide range of community organisations.

“We often conceptualise the education provider’s role in relation to an individual student, and we provided extensive support to individual students during the crisis. But we need to also think more about how to strengthen the broader support ecosystem in which students are embedded.

“It is apparent from the study that other students are often the first point of contact for those who need support. So programs that focus on strengthening peer support may help. That might include providing mental health first aid training to student leaders, guides on how to help friends who you are worried about, communications that de-stigmatise anxiety and depression, and so on.

“And we can perhaps do more to strengthen partnerships between education providers and key local organisations that engage with students, including ethnic community groups, religious organisations, welfare groups and sporting clubs.”

IEAA chief executive officer Phil Honeywood noted that it is “vital that every study destination country is prepared to be transparent about the support or lack of support that they provided international students throughout this most challenging of times”.

“We all have a duty of care to look after these young people when they are away from their friends and family. Hopefully, the learnings we have made will make for more holistic student support services going forward,” he said.

“The learnings we have made will make for more holistic student support services going forward”

IEAA president Janelle Chapman added that “it is important to acknowledge the extreme challenges Covid-19 presented and turn the crisis into an opportunity to build upon and strengthen established networks of support that have been forged”.

Lawrence reiterated that one of the greatest points of impact for all students was the loss of campus, in terms of access to the community, staff, other students, facilities, and sense of place. This was especially evident for international students for whom campus represented a significant part of their expectations and choice.

Lawrence told The PIE that there was a need to have a consolidated approach, including a contingency fund using a small proportion of fees to build a safety net.

The sector should also ensure that the wider community is made well aware of the challenges incumbent upon international students during a time of crisis. It also ought to put in place a contingency strategy with an immediate remit: hardship survival and mental health and wellbeing.

“In some ways this is a very old observation – ‘it take a village to raise a child’ – which we need to update for the twenty-first century,” Ziguras concluded.

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