By Anna Kent

International students, and the international education sector are hitting the headlines on a regular basis at the moment. These stories are rarely positive – stories of students being accepted without sufficient English language skills, students as spies and more. There are more nuanced discussions on the role of international education in contemporary Australia, such as Margaret Simons’ essay in Australian Foreign Affairs, but they are less common.

In part this is because most Australians know so little about what is one of Australia’s largest export industries. This is not entirely the fault of everyday Australians, but also the fault of the sector itself, which has for a long time played a “small target” game – staying away from the news, and just quietly going about its business. With immigration, particularly non-white immigration, always in the news, bringing attention to a large segment of that immigration (albeit temporary) could seem unwise.

What is now becoming clear, however, is that this small target approach has created problems of its own. When international education does make the news, there is so little understanding of the sector that there is no buffer. The sector gets no free passes.

To someone who spends most of their day reading, thinking and writing about the history of international education in Australia, this is disappointing. As someone who has worked in the industry, and been involved with one of the larger peak bodies within the sector (the International Education Association of Australia), it seems me to be somewhat of a missed opportunity. There are, now, steps being taken to talk about what international education means to the Australian community – earlier this year the IEAA launched the Broaden Our Horizons campaign which is designed to encourage Australians, individuals and organisations, to think about how international education broadens their horizons. But it is difficult to see if this campaign has made an impact in the broader community.

Students out front of a half constructed building.
A group of “freshers” at International House, University of Melbourne.
(NAA: A1501 A79_9)

But this change to Australia, and Australians, by international education is not something that is only occurring now. Since the end of the Second World War international students have been welcomed into our educational institutions, if not the nation as a whole. In 1948 the Australian government created a scholarship program – the South East Asian Scholarship Scheme – that was designed in part to placate governments in Australia’s geographic region (South East Asia and the Pacific) about the White Australia Policy. But it was also designed to bring the “Asians” into Australian universities – so that those Australians privileged enough to be in Australian universities would be able to understand the peoples of the nations of Australia’s region.  The role of these interactions, between Australians and their international peers on campus, is now becoming the focus of more historical research, as shown in a recently published article by David Lowe and I and recent work by other historians including Kate Darian-Smith and James Waghorne.

Dr Paula Durance wrote her PhD thesis on the impact of international students on the Melbourne CBD, and her findings reflect my own anecdotal experience. Walk the streets of the Melbourne CBD now and you will find a varied, vibrant street scape – at any time of the day, and at any time of the year. When I first began my undergraduate degree, in 1999, the CBD was not the place it is today, and much of the change has been precipitated by international students.

But it is more than apartment blocks and Korean Fried Chicken. We have failed, as a nation, to adequately reflect on the role that international students have played in the development, change, and growth of our community. We rarely stop to think about what the education system would look like without international students – aside from the financial injection provided, how varied and cosmopolitan would our university campuses be? A recent poll by the ANU shows that those who are at the coalface of the sector – students in universities – see more value in the presence of international students than many others, with only around 25% of that cohort thinking that the number of international students needs to be reduced. Those with perhaps least understanding – those who have never attended a university – are in the majority calling for a reduction in the number of international students. Perhaps this is because for them the benefits are less tangible, and the disadvantages more easily seen. For example, a train packed with students, or a sense that the Australia you remember is not the one you find outside your front door.

Statue of Edward Dunlop at the AWM.

From my soap box, I have many ideas about the policies the Australian government could be enacting when it comes to international education. But perhaps more important is the idea that the Australian public needs to have a better understanding of the role that international education has played in the formation of the nation, and the community we live in today. These students are not “foreign”, they are part of the fabric of the cities and towns we live in.

It is not so outlandish to believe that Australians might be able to engage with international education, and international students, on a personal level. Over the first four decades of international education in Australia, much of the support for those students came from the community, individuals and organisations like Rotary and the CWA. One of Australia’s most revered war heroes, Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop was, in the 1980s, President of the Melbourne Council for Overseas Students (MELCOS). Sir Weary used his position support international students, and to lobby the government on behalf of international students, recognising the role that these students played as part of the community.

Reducing international students to cash cows and headlines fails to engage with the history, and present of international education in Australia. Weary Dunlop and his predecessors have demonstrated that it is possible to recognise that international students are part of the community, and should be embraced as such.

Anna Kent
Anna Kent

Anna Kent is a PhD student at Deakin University, researching the history of Australian government education aid to the Pacific. Her research interests include international education, international development and the intersections between foreign policy, international education and international development.