The return of international students

| September 8, 2020

For international students and the sector that relies on them, the consequences of COVID-19 have been particularly pronounced. Many students have reluctantly returned to their home country, anxiously awaiting the chance to return to Australia. Many continue studies online from abroad, facing extraordinary challenges in the hope of a better future.

Although many sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic, the impact on the university sector has been particularly pronounced. Any economic impact will likely be exacerbated by widespread social anxiety. Yet, despite the pressures, both the sector and international students tend to be highly resilient.

International students are committed to overcoming the significant challenges they face. Australia is still considered one of the best places in the world to study. We can only estimate the eventual social and economic fallout of the current pandemic, but one thing is certain – the international education sector will not be the same for some time. We need to do everything we can to support our international students during these unprecedented times.

International students want to be here

A study I’m undertaking reveals that most international students currently in Australia wish to remain despite the COVID-19 circumstances. They continue to maintain positive views of Australia. Nonetheless, they miss interacting with their peers, and having access to the wider community.

They rely heavily on their contact with family members back home, which is frequent and usually on a daily basis. The loneliness and isolation they experience is countered by a belief that the current circumstances are temporary, and they will eventually return to what they previously enjoyed.

With Europe and the US looking more uncertain in terms of the pandemic, both Australia and New Zealand are likely to have increasing appeal for international students.

The students reveal characteristics associated with resilience and determination to stay in Australia to complete their studies. Furthermore, my conversations with students who returned home to study online revealed a strong desire to recommence their studies in Australia when possible.

With Europe and the US looking more uncertain in terms of the pandemic, both Australia and New Zealand are likely to have increasing appeal for international students. Regardless, we must respond to these anxious times, and work towards fine-tuning our international offerings and support programs.

What do international students want, and what can we offer?

The necessity to transition to online teaching during COVID-19 has caused both upheaval and excitement. Many courses have leapt into the future at tremendous speed. It seems we have quickly ended up with developments that would have otherwise taken years to achieve. From these developments we need to learn from all students, local and international, what works and what doesn’t.

In addition to the provision of education in the new environment, we also need to adapt our support for the wellbeing and mental health of international students.

Many Australian institutions have already put in place additional international student support services to mitigate financial difficulty, isolation and increased loneliness. However, we need to do more, and do it quickly, to ensure international students remain committed to their educational pursuits.

International students as contributors and partners

Bringing back international students requires discussions with governments and health officials, and suggestions from universities, students and families. Contributions from students and families as partners in international education arrangements is key to finding workable and acceptable approaches. International students as key informers can provide first-hand ideas that can contribute to policies and strategies.

Broader community support

Ideally, to enhance support for international students, partnerships should be developed between educational institutions and broader community services. This approach would enable the sharing of best-practice approaches to assisting international students from many and varied backgrounds. Partnerships also broaden the responsibility of providing a good and supported experience for international students.

A broader community response to the wellbeing of international students reflects the fact that it is both on and off campus that students navigate their stay in the host country. Partnerships between education institutions and wider community support services may also act as an enabler for students to access support services beyond campus boundaries.

This article was published by Lens.  Monash Arts is celebrating Social Sciences Week, September 7-13, with a series of free panels and lectures, showcasing how its research is helping to change the world for the better.

On Tuesday, September 8, Professor Helen Forbes-Mewett will chair a discussion about changing student cohorts, different modes of teaching, increased concern about visas, and the provision of healthcare and other support services. You can register for the webinar here.