Valuable but vulnerable: Welfare of international students a top priority

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They might generate billions for the Australian economy, but international students can be among those needing more support.

After iron ore and coal, education makes up Australia’s largest export industry.

In the last financial year, international students were worth a record $28 billion to the economy - an increase of 16 per cent - as the number of foreign students grew nationwide. 

Between January and August this year, China again made up the biggest contingent with 169,261 students enrolled in Australia, a 29.4 per cent share of the overall total of 577, 353.

India came in second, with 64,917 Indian students in Australia, followed by Nepal, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

But while the education sector is a lucrative one, international students can also be among the most vulnerable new arrivals in the country.

International students enrolled in Australia (top 20 countries) January - August 2017.
International students enrolled in Australia (top 20 countries) January - August 2017.
Department of Education

Valuable but vulnerable

Investing in student welfare has become a top priority for service providers, in order to enhance the experience for those in their home away from home.

As tertiary educators welcome their newest students starting this semester, the focus will be on helping them navigate through the challenges of studying in a foreign land.

“We don't see it just about dollars into the university, we see it as a cultural exchange,” said Deakin University Professor David Shilbury.

“Students from 121 different countries come to Deakin at any one time and that brings to the classroom a unique experience.”

Professor Shilbury is well aware of the challenges international students can face.

“Even just ways of learning, how we’re used to teaching, and our students learning, it’s not always the same with our students from parts of Asia, in particular.”

'I feel less homesick now'

Indian international student Chakx Asis Sing, who is studying commerce, told SBS World News that moving away from the comforts of home can be a daunting prospect, bringing on feelings of isolation.

“That is bound to happen from where ever country or culture you come from, so I think that is a challenge, definitely it is," Mr Singh said. 

"But, once you get to know people... I have made a few good friends, so I feel less homesick now than I used to be in the initial days”. 

Having access to things students enjoyed back home can help; like cricket, according to Indian international student, Piyush Tejwani.

“In India, cricket is famous, we love cricket, you know, so it's nice to have it here," Mr Tejwani said.

"We have got an opportunity to talk to people from every culture so that makes us learn about other cultures as well.”

'Enhanced student experience'

While New South Wales has the largest share of the international intake, at 37 per cent, Victoria is close behind with 32 per cent.

Victorian Education Department Deputy Secretary Tim Ada said enhanced student experience was a priority for the government, which has pledged $337,000 to its International Student Welfare Program.

“More than 175,000 international students are studying here in Victoria, it makes the sector the largest export sector for the Victorian economy, worth more than $7 billion and accounting for more than 30,000 jobs,” Mr Ada said.

Legal support for tenancy and employment is one focus.

Inner Melbourne Community Legal CEO, Daniel Stubbs, says the funding will improve student awareness of the services available to them.

“Often these students aren't even aware that they have rights under Australian law, and they can be protected under Australian law and they can take action.”

Getting involved in the local community - through programs such as Cricket Victoria's Harmony in Cricket - can also help.

Cricket Victoria's Rohan O'Neill says funding for the program will target physical and mental health. 

“Getting active and getting involved with people, having success, having some fun, builds resilience, builds that cohesion between people and that's what we're really about.”

The extra support will only enhance the Australian experience student Mr Tejwani has had so far.

“There is no problem at all, everyone is so friendly and cool kind of nature, we can approach everyone, we can just go and say hi to everyone randomly and they will reply back, so that's good.”

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