Australia's failure to adequately engage with Chinese international students studying in Australia is a lost opportunity for the country. International students account for about a third of university students and mainland China is by far their most common place of origin. Yet the majority of Chinese students graduate with little or no understanding of Australia's political and social systems. Although universities and government have long acknowledged the financial value of these students, they fail to recognise their potential as future friends and partners of Australia.
Chinese students often have little interaction with their Australian peers. Many Chinese students say they have few if any Australian friends and that outside of classes there is little opportunity for interaction. Particularly in centres like Sydney, some Chinese students interact almost exclusively with other Chinese people, speaking Chinese and reading Chinese language news sources, with little engagement with broader Australian society. The continued inability of universities to adequately promote opportunities for greater engagement means many Chinese students learn little about Australian people and society. It is a missed opportunity for Chinese and Australian students to learn from each other and to build relationships among the next generation of business and government leaders.
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Australia's transactional approach to international education also has broader strategic shortcomings. The vast majority of Chinese students study commerce-related degrees and graduate without an understanding of the political and legal institutions that underpin Australia as a nation and society. The separation of powers, the rule of law and the primacy of the Constitution – and the limits these place on the government of the day and the courts – are cornerstones of the Australian nation. Many Australians remain ignorant of these institutions, beyond a hazy assumption of how things "work" in Australia. But mainland Chinese students come from a significantly different political system with different assumptions about how the government and the courts operate. Given many will go on to important roles in business and government upon their return to China, these are issues on which international university students should gain some level of familiarity. Doing so would support the Australian government's advocacy of a rules-based international order by promoting an understanding of how a rules-based society works among the international students studying here.
The absence of an integrated strategy to engage with international students in Australia is afforded greater significance because the Chinese government does reach out to Chinese students studying here. Through events run for Chinese students and support for Chinese student associations and community groups the Chinese embassy and consulates foster a sense of community and support that is not provided by their host nation or many universities.
Fostering a sense of community through greater use of home-stays and pairing students up with Australian families to share in meals at home and family outings, increased availability of internships for international students and introducing elements of a liberal education into the international student curriculum or through study tours have been raised as ways to start addressing the problem. Principally conducted as university-led schemes incentivised by government, these measures could start to make a difference and improve the educational experience for many international students from China and elsewhere.
The sheer number of Chinese students in Australia is often given as a reason for not attempting to better engage with them. There are so many, the argument usually goes, that it would be impossible for any program to reach all or even most. This should not be used as an excuse to do nothing, however. If Australian universities have become so dependent on foreign student fees that their numbers preclude attempts to better engage with them it simply highlights the need for broader funding reform.
For too long international students, particularly from China, have been considered the cash cows of the Australian higher education system. It is time universities and the government moved past this transactional approach to one which pays greater attention to longer term interests. Doing so would improve the educational experience for many Chinese international students and promote the Australian national interest. Improving the experience of international students would also help to ensure the long-term health of Australia's higher education sector amid ever-increasing international competition. Incentivising universities to better engage with Chinese students should be a focus of the federal government's forthcoming National Strategy for International Education.
Eva O'Dea is research and project manager at China Matters.