International students: It’s not just business

While it is obvious that international students bring money into the Australian economy, it is more important to recognise that they bring with them a raft of hopes, dreams, uncertainty, fear, goals and ambitions. The vast majority have made a choice to leave the world they they know, to leave their family and friends, and travel to another country to study at a high level in a language that is not their own; something that many of us will never attempt.

International students lift the bar for Australian students, and contribute to a thriving, multi-dimensional learning experience for “Aussie kids”. It saddens me deeply to see international students talked about merely in monetary terms.

While there has been a lot of focus on the aggregate contributions that international students have made, I want to focus on my own experiences. I am in almost every way a middle class white Australian male. I grew up in a rural community of 1600 people, 8 hours from Sydney. I did not see my first “non-Australian” face until I was 14 and that was because a Japanese family (for reasons I still cannot fathom) came all the way to rural Australia to teach maths for a year in the region’s high school.

Today, I get to walk into a classroom filled with the faces of people from, at my latest count, at least 50 countries. We share our quirks, our customs and our cultures. We enjoy a joke. We also share intellectual problems, the pursuit of solutions and the discovery of a brilliant idea.

I see the contribution that can be made by those who have come half a world away to study. They accept the challenge to study at a high level in a foreign language far from family and friends. They do so in the pursuit of a broader mind.

They also come with fears, the burden of expectations and immense financial pressure, having to work across an assortment of casual jobs. Many of these students are facing hardship as a result of COVID-19 quarantine as they are outside State and Federal government assistance.

While there are challenges associated with size and composition of the international student cohort, overall international students have enriched the experiences and perspectives of those in the classroom, myself included.. Not bad for a boy from Whoop-Whoop.

The excellence of Australian education in conjunction with the successful international student strategy to buffer against aggressive defunding of research and education by successive governments, has meant that the education sector is now a lynch pin in the Australian economy.

The following graph highlights just how important education is to the Australian economy: Education is Australia’s third most valuable export, bringing in approx. $32.5 billion, almost 33% more than personal travel and tourism and dwarfing the financial services sector, while contributing to the creation of knowledge rather than blowing up knowledge that is over 40,000 years old.

On the back of this growth, Australian universities are punching well above their weight internationally. In a country of just 25 million, Australian universities represent 7% of the top 100 universities globally. This excellence is achieved despite a decade of reduced government support and against competing universities with massive war chests, some competing universities abroad hold private endowments in excess of $20 billion AUD.

International students clearly have a profound impact on the economic wellbeing of all Australians. Their contribution is equally profound to the health and success of future Australians. The economic contribution helps to fund important research across a swathe of research areas: cancer research, understanding causes of mental ill-heath, developing revolutionary uses for robotics and nanotechnology, preparing for the future of work in a world of automation, and even the impact of COVID-19 on business and society.

But funding the research is only part of the puzzle. Because Australia does so well on an international stage, we can attract some of the brightest minds globally to study and teach within our country. This is no trivial matter in a world where knowledge and the knowledge economy is becoming increasingly more valuable. As a result of being able to do great research, we can attract a great cohort of academics, well supported by professional staff, who further progress the research and development outputs associated with Australia.

In every way, international students lift the bar for Australian students, and contribute to a thriving, increasingly diverse and multi-dimensional learning experience for “Aussie kids”. It therefore saddens me deeply to see international students talked about merely in monetary terms, while the nation grapples with a debate about the merits of international students given the COVID-19 disruption to the education sector.

It saddens me because I personally know the impact our students can have, both domestic and international, and I know just how much mental and emotional effort many of my colleagues invest into the education of all their students, due mainly to an intrinsic motivation to see others succeed and knowledge grow.

While there has been a lot of focus on the aggregate contributions that international students have made, I want to narrow the focus and talk about my own experiences. I am in almost every way a middle class white Australian male. I grew up in a rural community of 1600 people, 8 hours from Sydney and 5 hours from Melbourne. I did not see my first “non-Australian” face until I was 14 and that was because a Japanese family (for reasons I still cannot fathom) came all the way to rural Australia to teach maths for a year in the region’s high school.

Because Australia does so well on an international stage, we can attract some of the brightest minds globally to study and teach within our country. This is no trivial matter in a world where knowledge and the knowledge economy is becoming increasingly more valuable.

Today, I get to walk into a classroom filled with the faces of people from at least 50 nations around the globe. In that classroom we get to enjoy a joke and hopefully a smile. We share our quirks, our customs and our cultures. We also share intellectual problems, the pursuit of solutions and the discovery of a brilliant idea.

I see the contribution that can be made by people from different places, from those who have come half a world away to study in the city that I too now call home. Many come to Australia because of what the nation has to offer from something as tangible as the weather to ideas as important as civil freedoms. They accept the challenge to study at a high level in a foreign language far from family and friends. They do so in the pursuit of a broader mind.

Equally, many come with fears, the burden of expectations and immense financial pressure, having to work across an assortment of casual jobs (my favourite of course being those who work in local ice creameries who, on occasion have been known to bring me a tub of their finest peanut butter based stock). Many of these students are facing hardship as a result of COVID-19 quarantine as they are outside State and Federal government assistance.

There is temptation to view students in the aggregate, something I too have been guilty of, but they are individuals with their own hopes and dreams. For a brief time, I am given the opportunity to share their ambitions. Hopefully I am able to provide something that helps them achieve their dreams that they have set for themselves well before coming to my classroom; be it to open a distillery, run an animal welfare not-for-profit, return to their home country to improve freight-rail networks contributing to the economic performance of their country, or to look at ways of encouraging sustainable transport choices as their economy becomes richer and can afford motor vehicles and all the problems that come with them.

Australia does have a large number of international students and there are challenges associated with that, but we must remember that it also presents an opportunity for Australia to have a large global impact. While I am not able to listen to all their stories nor learn of all their ambitions, I am fortunate enough to see the contribution they make to the vibrancy of our multicultural country, the improved cultural competence of our domestic students and global friendships they are able to forge. A majority of these students will return to their homes where they will talk about Australia; the good and the bad.

COVID-19 has created a separation between my students and I, a separation I do not like. I have been given a rare opportunity to share in the education of people from around the globe. While there are challenges associated with size and composition of the international student cohort, these students have enriched my life and my perspective. Not bad for a boy from Whoop-Whoop.


This is part of a series of insights related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on business.

Image: Startup Stock Photos

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