A national survey of international students has just been released by Education Minister Christopher Pyne, stating the reputation of our institutions is the number one factor in attracting international students to Australia.
Australia has been very successful in attracting international students. We are the envy of many other countries that seek to match and surpass this success. International education varies between Australia’s third and fourth major export and we need to maintain this growth to sustain our share of the market.
While Australian universities have been successful in attracting international students, more needs to be done to ensure institutions can adapt to increased numbers of international students in classrooms.
The wellbeing, satisfaction and academic success of international students are major priorities for the Australian higher education sector. A recent study by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education investigated the attitudes and experiences of first-year students in universities.
It supported the results of today’s international student survey in finding that first-year international students were generally satisfied with their university experience.
However, international students were less satisfied than local students with the quality of teaching and were more likely to feel that university had not lived up to their expectations. The study also found that international students experience more difficulties with their studies, compared with local students.
These findings point to the challenges that universities face. In particular, universities have had to improve English language programs and provide better academic support services. A major challenge lies in assessing the English language skills of university students within their course of study.
Who are our international students?
The number of international students in Australian higher education has increased from around 35,000 in 1994 to over 236,000 in 2014. Australia attracts international students from 191 countries.
The largest group is from China - around 36% of all international students in Australian universities. India and Vietnam round out the top three countries for international students. Six of the top ten source countries are in Asia.
Research has indicated time and again that international students are a very diverse group of learners, just as local learners are. The international-local divide is a false dichotomy that is full of assumptions and half-truths. It supports the view that somehow international students are a problem to teach in universities but that local students are not. This is an incorrect assumption.
Many international students have English language problems
Many students, both local and international, encounter difficulties in writing at a university level. As employer surveys continue to show, high English language skills are important for all graduates, not just international students.
The increased number of international students has meant that universities have had to develop better approaches to support all students who struggle with their English. Universities have tried to address these issues by introducing foundation subjects in first-year undergraduate courses, which develop students’ language skills and offer English language support classes. Some progress has been made, but more needs to be done.
Research indicates that academics believe they are ill-equipped to deal with teaching English language in their classrooms. Most English language programs are under-resourced and operate outside of subject teaching. Practices can be disjointed and not connected to assessment within subjects.
We need to include English language in the assessment of university subjects. Without this, it is difficult for universities to know their graduates have the necessary levels of English language communication for employment.
At the very least this would minimise the risk of developing a negative perception of the quality of Australian graduates. This can only be good for the international reputation of Australian universities and for attracting international students.
What have universities done to assist interaction?
The presence of large numbers of international students offers many opportunities for local students to interact with students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. While social integration between local and international students has increased over the last ten years, significant improvements can still be made in this area.
International students want to engage with local students. Research shows they seek to make Australian friends.
Part of the difficulty for some international students is that they can find themselves in classrooms full of students from the same country as them. This tends to occur in business and management courses, which have the largest numbers of international students, mainly from China.
Another challenge is that many local students have fewer opportunities to socialise with international students. The First Year Experience study shows that local students are spending less time on campus compared to students ten years ago. One of the main reasons is work.
Universities try to create opportunities for students to engage with each other. Some of the initiatives include transition programs, common foundation subjects in undergraduate degrees, and group work. Universities have also invested in purpose-built learning spaces designed to promote collaborative learning and peer engagement.
Guidelines for designing curriculum and promoting student interaction have also been developed to assist academics. These are being used to redesign teaching so that international and local students can reap the benefits of engaging with each other. This is important for local students, who need to develop these skills for working in the “Asian century”.
While these are all steps in the right direction, more needs to be done to ensure international students are getting the most out of what they are paying for. Better programs need to be put in place to make sure these students have the requisite communication skills to not only finish their degrees, but be employable once they have.