Strangers in a new country: International Students in Australia
By Mehroz Siraj Sadruddin
Since the introduction of a flexible and immigrant friendly General Skills Migration Programme, by the government of former Prime Minister John Howard nearly eight years ago, international students have been entering Australia for educational and residential purposes in large numbers.
According to an October 2008 report prepared by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), nearly 370,000 international students were undertaking tertiary education in Australia, which in itself was a two-fold increase since 2000.
As of May 2010, Australian government figures state that there were 462,266 full-fee paying international students enrolled in Australia’s various educational institutions.
International education in Australia has grown to become a nearly $15 to $17 billion industry, which after iron-ore and uranium, is the largest contributor to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and export earnings.
However, despite these statistical figures, the general issues and challenges that international students face in terms of adjusting to the westernized lifestyles and cultures of Australia, is something that is not so clearly or widely reported or understood in mainstream Australian society.
“Various transitions are taking place at the same time,” says Chirstopher Zigaraus, a senior RMIT University lecturer and expert on international students and immigration.
According to Mr Zigaraus, the transition phase that normally all international students pass through, is not only about commencing their higher education, but is also generally about commencing life right from the scratch. This includes looking for suitable accommodation, part-time jobs, managing their finances, and managing their full-time study loads as that is an essential requirement on all student visa sub-classes.
In many cases, these transitions and the students’ struggles to settle down their lives in Australia can be a long-drawn procedure which is not only directly dependant on the financial statuses of their families in their home countries, but also on their own priorities, brought up and cultural background.
Immigration experts and student counselors relate the problems being faced by international students to some underlying factors.
One such factor routinely pointed out is the lack of research and effective networking skills on part of international students. The search for accommodation is one classic example of this.
Students raise issues about bias and being treated unfairly. According to them, local students are given preferential treatment in the rental markets.
However detailed interviews with student counselors at Melbourne’s leading universities and real estate agents clearly reveal that in many cases overseas students do not do prior research about and accommodation while they are planning their travels to Australia from their home countries.
Real estate agents and student counselors unanimously oppose the idea of racial bias. According Mr Zigaraus, international students do not have an understanding about how the real estate sector works in Australia. According to him, the unavailability of affordable housing is the outcome of market forces, which equally affect local students and not any form of discrimination.
Giving the real estate sector’s viewpoints on this issue , Ms Ashleigh Rosano, a real estate agent working for the ‘Ray White’ real estate company says that, “our job is to do what is best for our landlords.”
According to her, housing international students is the responsibility of the education providers and the governments, who are bringing them into Australia. Talking further, she argues that landlords prefer to lease out properties to families instead of students, local or international, as they are believed to be violating requisite legislations that give details about the responsibilities of the tenants.
According to the Residential Tenancies Act of 1997, it is the tenants’ responsibility to keep the property clean and tidy and to ensure that it is not over-crowded.
However, repeated inquiries, studies and media coverage across Australia, specially in Melbourne and Sydney, have found that these legal responsibilities of students are only existing on paper.
In a report submitted by the Melbourne Fire and Emergency Service Board, MFEB, to the Victorian Senate’s Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee, the organization argued that in many cases, international students who live in over crowded accommodations show general disregard and lack of understanding about building laws, fire security equipments, along with general cleanliness and safety requirements at their residential properties.
According to Ms Rosano, it is precisely because of this reason, that landlords generally prefer to lease out properties to families or couples, rather than students as a matter of first choice.
The real shortage of residential properties across Australia and the mammoth increase in rentals over the last two years are generally considered to be the main reason forcing students, both local and international, to live in over crowded accommodation.
The Overseas Student Education Experience Taskforce (OSEET) report presented to the then Victorian State Minister For Skills and Workforce Participation, Jacinta Allan in December 2008 mentioned that vacancy rates for accommodation were a mere 1 per cent.
According to many analysts an ideal figure of 3 per cent does indicate that the demand and supply for residential property can break-even with each other, therefore making it a bit easier for overseas students to find accommodation.
Rentals, which increased by nearly 13 per cent in Melbourne between March 2007 and March 2008 and by nearly 8 per cent in Sydney during the last financial year, have also been sighted by many experts as a reason because of which international students are forced to live in overcrowded accommodations.
Over time, however relevant solutions have been proposed to this housing crisis. The OSEET report recommended that the Victorian state government should work in collaboration with other stake holders and to make sure that published material be made widely accessible to students.
Another solution, as mentioned by Ms Rosano is the prospect of genuine public-private partnerships that should be initiated by the state governments and the education providers with the intention of building accommodation targeting the needs of international students.
“The government should invest in suburbs where students mostly live,” argues Ms Rosano, implying that more investments should come in the inner city suburbs or in those far away areas where Australia’s biggest universities are based.
“This would make it easier for overseas students to search for accommodation,” she argues. These new initiatives, according to her, should be tailor-made keeping in mind the interests and needs of the overseas students.
Also, she mentions that there should be a proper government department that deals with the affairs and issues of overseas students. One such organization is the International Student Care Services (ISCS), which is itself part of the much larger Victorian Multicultural Commission.
“[The ISCS] is a welfare support service for international students,” argues Mr Elias Tsigiras, who is the head of this three year pilot project.
One important mandate of the ISCS in fact, is to provide correct guidance and counseling to international students by addressing the many issues and challenges that they face with regards to higher education and general life in Australia.
Other than accommodation, international students do face genuine issues about part time jobs, individual rights and general social inclusion in the mainstream Australian society.
According to senior student counselor at RMIT University, Sally Blair, international students face problems about jobs owing to a multitude of reasons.
According to her, during study time, it is the visa status and the general poor level of English language skills amongst international students that is a major problem because of which students are denied part time jobs.
Effective English language skills are considered as an essential pre-requisite for obtaining part-time or full-time jobs in Australia.
Another key issue identified by Ms Blair and counselors at other universities is the issue of networking. According to Ms Blair, most of the time international students just tend to stay confined within their own groups of friends, all of whom may belong to the same or similar ethnic, racial and linguistic backgrounds. This, according to her deprives the students of really learning much more about what is happening within their surroundings and in the job market.
Such a tendency also ensures that many international students do not end up accepting that it is their responsibility to do the job searches and liaise and network with the right people.
“Students have to take responsibility of doing their job search, networking and practicing effective communication in English,” argues Ms Blair.
Agreeing to these viewpoints are Monash university’s senior student counselors Wendy Bolstock and Judy Green, both of whom argue that the lack of networking skills and limited social interactions with different groups of people, along with poor English language skills, are a major disadvantage for international students.
According to Chinese student Ariel Lao, the onus of undertaking initiatives across all walks of life in Australia, lies with the students. However, she points out that in many cases, East Asian international students do not have the motivation to build cultural bridges with other communities in Australia. According to her, East Asian international students take things very easily primarily because they come from affluent backgrounds and they do not have to worry about their finances.
However, the cases of students hailing from other ethnic backgrounds are much different. South Asian, Arab and African students are generally more concerned about managing their part-time jobs along with their full-time studies.
As most of these students do not hail from wealthy backgrounds, they desperately require part-time work as soon as they land in Australia. Their financial problems, coupled with their lack of knowledge of local laws, including those specifying minimum wages often pushes them towards being exploited.
Most students working in unsafe and unhygienic conditions for wage rates of less than $10 an hour (considered as slavery according to the laws in Victoria) do not report their exploitation out of various fears, as these students may in-turn be violating visa regulations which prohibit them from working for more than 20 hours a week.
Most challenges that international students face in Australia are largely because of their own incorrect and half-hearted approaches and the general market forces, which also equally affect local students, if not more.
Alice, a research assistant at Victoria University says that the ever spiraling costs of living, specially the sharp increase in monthly rents, have pushed many local students to work more than 30 hours a week to make their ends meet. She points out that over the last 15 years, government grants in Victoria have been drying out and those students, who work less than 30 hours, may find it difficult to support themselves if they are living away from family.
Some local students who were interviewed, said that they continued to live with their families because they could not afford the high rentals of privately leased accommodations.
“Housing and accommodation is dangerously expensive for local students as well. Melbourne is a hell-hole when it comes to accommodation,” argues RMIT University graduate Fiona Mcalpine.
According to Ms Kathryn Markis, a senior student counselor at Monash University’s residential services, if students do some online research about student accommodation and managing their finances prior to their arrival in Australia, the burdens and pressures operating on them, could be reduced.
Identifying a possible approach, she says that international students should browse through the websites of real estate companies to check rental prices, affordability and prospective locations where they could consider applying for leasing residential properties.
She also adds that students should be in active communication with the counseling services at their concerned universities over email and telephone, so that all the problems that students face while doing their online research and planning their travel journeys be resolved in advance.
Interviews with international students and student counselors at universities also reveal that in many cases, when students do not do prior research about living costs, accommodation and the job market in Melbourne and rely totally on the gloomy pictures presented to them by ill-informed education agents or assurances given at word of mouth, they end up facing many difficulties.
“Agents don’t tell anything, all information is based on perception,” argues Mr Sumit Purdani of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia, FISA.
He said that in most cases, the knowledge of the agents is based totally on second hand data that in many cases is not substantive or authentic at all.
Another important issue raised by Mr Purdani, is that of the sprawling business of private colleges which provide only low quality education and no counseling or student services whatsoever. Still, they bill hefty fees invoices to the students.
As this sector has witnessed Australia wide exponential growth, the failure of the authorities to regulate this sector has borne great consequences. Students do not have any financial security whatsoever at such dubious private colleges, meaning that if the colleges go bankrupt or if they are forced by the concerned state governments to shut down owing to their dodgy educational courses, those students who have paid their fees, may not be able to get their money refunded.
Since the attacks on Indian international students last year and the explosion of negative coverage in the Australian and international media, the government responded by acting against shoddy education providers, mostly private colleges. While many were prohibited from recruiting more overseas students, some were promptly shut down.
These colleges had roped in tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees from Indian students, despite providing sub-standard education that entailed no practical importance.
According to Mr Purdani, FISA had to fight for nearly eight months for those students whose fees were not returned by the administrations of the closed colleges.
Most Indian students coming to these private colleges across Australia, hail from the country’s north-western state of Punjab. According to many experts these students generally consider these vocational courses as a pathway to attaining permanent residencies and are therefore more interested in making easy money through taxi driving and labour work, rather than attaining an internationally recognized education in fields like engineering and Information Technology.
It goes beyond doubt that international students in Melbourne generally do face many diverse issues that the state and federal governments and the education providers have so far failed to adequately address. While students need to be socially more proactive, it goes beyond doubt to assert that it is the responsibility of the authorities and the educational institutions to provide easy and affordable accommodation to these students who come to Australia to make life for themselves and have to start from the scratch.