The international student and the challenge for universities


By Professor Glyn Davis -

‘The time that my journey takes is long and the way of it long.’ — Rabindranath Tagore

The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore writes powerfully on the excitement and pain of ‘the journey home’. Tagore’s journey home, takes in many distant shores and worlds towards an understanding of his best potential self. For more than three million international students, the challenges of the journey are experienced every day. Living in an unfamiliar culture. Missing the sights and sounds of home. And working hard to develop skills and knowledge and develop their own potential—potential which may ultimately transform lives and communities.

The rise of international students has been one of the great stories of modern times. Since the days of Erasmus in the sixteenth century, scholars have been famous travellers. As bordered nation-states emerged in the sixteenth century, Erasmus and his fellow European scholars adopted a contrary aspiration: they sought to be citizens of the world—ego mundi civis esse cupio, as Erasmus wrote to a friend in 1522. The humanist scholars of that period founded the first learned academies—freely exchanging knowledge across borders, and helping give rise to the modern university.

Today, that ambition is shared by students all around us. A handful of humanists in the time of Erasmus has grown to more than 150 million education students and staff worldwide. Small flocks of adventurous scholars making intellectual pilgrimages around Europe have become a population of millions of international students today. Their numbers seem destined to grow.

For students, increasing global mobility in higher education represents great opportunities—and significant challenges. Opportunities lie in professional training across many fields, usually beyond a level available in their homeland. Commerce and business studies, engineering, law, education, health and medicine are popular choices. Yet more significant than any one discipline is the human capacity this training enables. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen speaks of human freedom in terms of the capability of individuals to do or be the things that they desire. Education is a great enabler of this ideal, of freedom as a form of self-determination. International education, in particular, presents the opportunity for developing capacities to a spectacular degree and on a global scale.

Yet many international students find the going tough. None, perhaps, expects life and study in a foreign country to be easy. But some struggle daily with language difficulties, feelings of isolation and ‘culture shock’. In a recent book, Ideas for Intercultural Education1 the voices of international students are heard. One Chinese international student in Australia, ‘Li-Lin’, told researchers that she had trouble making friends and that ‘Everything is so shocking.’ Her frustration at the inflexibility of her teachers’ styles has been echoed by other students, including in a UK study which found that many teachers made no adjustments to their curriculum and methods, despite a large variety of cultures being represented in their classroom.

On the other hand, intensive work is happening within the sector to boost interaction between domestic and international students. Finding Common Ground, a research project supported by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council through 2008–10, found a range of teaching and learning practices that realise the benefits of diversity within classrooms. These benefits are substantial, for all concerned.2

Increasingly, this is or should be a direct concern for a large number of universities. Perhaps universities in every country are affected, but none more so than Australia. Proportionally, Australia has welcomed international students into its system in larger numbers than any nation. 21 per cent of all tertiary students enrolled in Australia are foreign students. On this count, Australia is followed by the United Kingdom, Switzerland and New Zealand with 14–16 per cent. All other nations have smaller percentages again.

In many respects, for Australians, this should be a matter for pride. On the surface, today’s Australia seems a nation strongly engaged with the dynamic world of student mobility. But in at least one important respect, we could be doing much better. Recent figures suggest a disturbing feature of our international student engagement. The traffic is largely one way. For every Australian higher education student leaving for study overseas, 24 foreign students arrive here. Australians may congratulate themselves on the cosmopolitan sophistication of their higher education outlook, but are they fully seizing the opportunity offered by higher education’s greatest ever global moment?

Every nation is challenged by the stunning rise in global student mobility. There has been a huge increase in ‘internationally mobile’ tertiary students in recent decades. UNESCO has predicted the number of international students might almost double to seven million by 2020. We should not lose sight of what a transformational opportunity these numbers represent—not only for individual students, but for every participating university as well.

University leaders in Australia and other countries are increasingly conscious of the need for action. Universities rightly can and do advocate on behalf of international students, who are guests in their institutions and their country. But perhaps more important is doing everything possible to make university campuses places where every student, from home or abroad, can feel at home. A concrete example of such efforts is the ‘Global Lounge’ at the University of British Columbia—a university with a substantial international student population. UBC is seeking to break down barriers in the classroom and provide informal spaces for students to build a community through various initiatives. Its Global Lounge is a gathering space, home to over 1,000 staff and domestic and international students who mingle and work in globally focused clubs, to explore global issues and raise inter-cultural awareness. Many other universities are finding new ways of meeting this emerging change. As the global mobility of students’ increases, these initiatives are steps towards Erasmus’ aspirations for scholars and their communities.

The poet Tagore described the end of the journey home with a cry ‘My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said “Here art thou!”’ This new understanding and transformation is the core purpose of education: and never more so than in a global age.

Professor Glyn Davis is Professor of Political Science and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Melbourne. Alongside his role as Vice-Chancellor, Professor Davis serves as chair of Universities Australia, and is also chair of Universitas 21, a global network of leading international universities, as well as being Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College London.

  1. Simon Marginson and Erlenawati Sawir, Palgrave Macmillan 2012
  2. http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/research/experience/enhancing_interact.html

 

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