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Belle Lim, Council of International Students Australia

As Council of International Students Australia president Belle Lim has spent the best part of the global health pandemic advocating for international students in Australia, as well as those studying with the country’s providers from their home countries. As Belle prepares to pass on the baton, she spoke to The PIE about what students need and expect going forward.


"The government needs to work on the visa policy reform to think about changing the visa policy in a way that gives the international students a fair chance in the Australian job market"

The PIE: With vaccination rates ramping up in Australia, how does the current scenario look from international students’ perspectives?

BL: At this point we are quite optimistic that students will be able to return at the start of next year. We understand that pilot programs are also in place for New South Wales and Victoria [as well as South Australia] for the end of the year. So we’re excited to welcome a roadmap for students’ return. Students have been stuck outside Australia for over 18 months now and their hardships have been very well documented. Students [stuck overseas] are the same like us. They have paid the same fee and we are all entitled to the same kind of education experience.

The PIE: The minister for Education spoke about the piloting of a home quarantine system, in his address at the recently concluded AIEC 2021. Might this offer a better alternative than the current hotel quarantine arrangements?

“We are pleased to see that there is a very clear roadmap for students to come back”

BL: Everyone’s circumstances are different, some international students have a place to stay in Australia already that they can return to, while others would be coming here for the first time. So, we think that more flexibility is certainly welcome. We are pleased to see that there is a very clear roadmap for students to come back.

The PIE: Have you seen international students starting to choose countries such as Canada, UK, and the US over Australia, as a result of them being relatively open?

 BL: 100%. We ran a survey a few months ago, with over 600 respondents, which revealed that the majority of the students are not satisfied with the online learning. They paid the fee for a combination of in-country experiences that you can’t replicate online. And, a lot of the students, especially prospective students, are already moving to other countries.

There has been little consideration given to students that are in a difficult position. And, international students are disappointed. I think that Australia’s reputation has taken a hit during this time. We understand that the government has the health concern that comes first for them, but when there are other countries that are offering very similar things, it’s only natural for students to look to those options.

The PIE: You’ve been involved in Australia’s Strategy for International education 2021-2030. Do you reckon that there is a need to shift the outlook towards international students, away from as mere economic entities?

BL: Absolutely. In the strategy we are very clear about the vision that we set out for the next 10 years, that is shifting the focus away from the economics, which makes up most of the public discourse in relation to international education. And, I think that is quite harmful for the image of the sector. There is so much that the HE sector brings to Australia and to other countries as well. For instance, there needs to be more focus on country to country linkage. With the student mobility, Australia educates, essentially the future workforce and future leaders of other countries as well. I feel the HE sector and the contributions of international students are undervalued.

Even if we just talk in an economic sense, then the investment from international education goes into building research capability, the experience of domestic students, in building facilities, and into the offerings that universities provide.

“Many international students are highly-skilled workers, with a global vision and knowledge, that they bring into Australia”

And, the other big part is the cultural contribution and to the workforce. Many international students are highly-skilled workers, with a global vision and knowledge, that they bring into Australia.

The PIE: What role does the sector have towards building a consciousness in the community on the significance of international education and the contributions of students coming from overseas, especially in the light of the launch of ‘We Are Australia’ this month?

BL: We ran a survey recently and it was really sad to read that most international students have faced racism in some form or the other. Most students have faced micro-aggression, if not highly in-your-face or physical aggression. It is very confronting for a lot of students.

I feel very strongly that the Australian HE sector should be doing more. It is not someone else’s problem. The international education sector is responsible for attracting a large number of international students to Australia and it should be taking on the responsibility of promoting social cohesion and community integration between international students and the local community.

I think a few actions are required. Firstly, it is public education and awareness. On the basis of human rights and respect, and multiculturalism, the Australian HE sector hasn’t done enough, in my opinion. There has been a shift over the past few years over the issue of gender. The sector has taken the issue on, in the recent past, but I think that the sector hasn’t done that for issues around race and ethnicity yet, and it should.

Secondly, most universities do not have the adequate mechanisms to deal with reports of racial abuse or attacks. Many incidents remain underreported due to this, as international students are not confident that reporting will lead to any action taken against the perpetrators.

We have been working with the Australian Human Rights Commission and want to make sure that international students will be included in the National Anti-Racism Framework.

The PIE: How do you think cohesion between international students and the community be enhanced, particularly in the light of the government’s incentives for international students to move to regional Australia?

BL: Students bring a large number of skills to regional areas and help in bridging the skills gap. We need to make sure that the interests and rights of international students are upheld, as the regional areas have much smaller multicultural communities. We are concerned about whether students are going to have a safe and respectful community to live in. This [policy] needs much more consultation and co-design with students.

Curriculum also needs to promote integration. The university curriculum is very western centric and does not facilitate the integration of international students. It does not help in bringing international students and domestic students together. Often therefore, we see separate groups in classes. That is not a good experience for any one in the classroom. The HE and the university sector in Australia cannot foster a global outlook, unless the cultural competence of domestic students is made a priority.

The PIE: It’s often hard for international students to find jobs commensurate with their skills and experience upon graduating. What role can the industry play in being more open to recruiting international students?

BL: This is a crucial issue that we are focusing on. It is unfair international students with post-study work visas are not considered for most jobs, due to not being citizens or permanent residents. That is a barrier for temporary visa workers. This is not productive for Australia itself.

Universities need to do a lot more to create linkages between international students and the private sector in Australia. The universities need to champion the value of international students that they have trained and taught skills to, and champion the value that we bring to the economy. Students also bring the cultural knowledge that the Australian private sector desperately needs.

“Most Australians do not know that migration props up Australia’s productivity”

Most Australians do not know that migration props up Australia’s productivity. Year after year, Australia’s productivity increases because of skilled migration and lot of the skilled migration comes through international students. Australia needs to be competitive globally, especially in the face of having fewer international students coming in over the last year and a half. If you want to retain talent, you have to give more attractive options to international students.

Secondly, the government needs to work on the visa policy reform to think about changing the visa policy in a way that gives the international students a fair chance in the Australian job market.

Lastly, the private sector needs to follow what it preaches in terms of diversity and inclusion. If you shut the door on international students, then you are missing out on global talent and you are going against your own commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The PIE: In your opinion, does the funding model of Australian universities need a shift, from being heavily reliant on international students?

BL: I think that some of the criticism that the current Education minister has levelled at the universities, is in a way, fair, in terms of how much they are relying on international students.

But, at the same time, if the government wants more diversity in terms of students and have less reliance on international students, then they need to fund public universities more, not less. The government needs to play a big role. It is partly due to the reduction of funding that the universities have had to rely so much on international students.

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