Lee Duffield

Edited by Lee Duffield
Freedom and Truth

How “international” are our campuses?

thumbHIGH FLYERS IN A HUGE GAME

Moving to a new country to follow a vocation, and begin a new life, will be exhilarating and also daunting.

The high-flyers from more than 50 countries coming to Australian universities to study for a doctorate, and begin a career in research, are contributing to a national project here that’s at times struggling to expand.

Taken together with overseas students in high schools, colleges and Bachelor degree courses in the universities, they are  – as is well-known –  part of a huge industry.

They are also a key part of the drive towards a smart economy for the future, keeping Australia competitive in technology and discovery.

The students though have their own struggles, mixed in with the benefits they find in this country.

Among  those worries is a concern that something extra might be done by Australian universities, and academics, to become more international in their own culture.

They’re being called on also for a better effort to bring International  Students into the system, by giving them more of a  share of training and preparation as researchers and lecturers  – such as the national policy calls for.

It’s true that the government is committing more, to get the students to come.

The number of standard scholarship and living allowances paid to higher degree students  -approximately $40000 a year, including the fees- is set to double in the current five years leading to 2012.

About 2500 start each year on the scholarship, called the Australian Postgraduate Research Award,  set to rise to 3500.

The same amount is being offered, through a second set of packages, most often with the Australian government coming up with $20000 a year for fees, and outside sponsors, including sponsors in the students’ home countries, providing the living allowances.

It is common to find International Students in Australian universities making up nearly one-third of scholars doing higher-degree research.

Not that the students themselves spend their waking hours mulling over the problems of nation-building in Australia.

A NEW KIND OF COUNTRY

thumbThe first problem for them has been to find the right research project; obtain enough financial support, and then deal with the vagaries of a new kind of country and culture.

“I introduce students to the Australian way of life. I might show a film … You see the Australian students playing a lot of sports, and drinking beer, and then I show a picture of someone looking through a microscope, and then the Australians become serious … They work hard and will stay back and do long hours”, says Prof. Acram Taji, at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

As the university’s Director of International Graduate Research, the Professor says her overseas  research students are an elite pool, standing up well when compared with Australian  counterparts in tests.

That’s unsurprising given the competition the students have survived to get where they are, and major efforts being made by people like herself  worldwide to get them to choose a destination such as QUT.

“We spend a lot of time and energy on this”, says Prof. Taji.

“Our international profile is important; they can say, what kind of global university is it, if you don’t have international research students?”

As for the competition, the Australian university sector has  made sudden gains over 10 to 15 years, building up numbers of International Students, after going for a long time with relatively few.

“Australia was not such a world high performer, and then all of a sudden it had such a high income, something like $18-billion dollars a year, and a very large industry formed around International Students; so other countries, like the United Kingdom or the United States, have seen this, and the competition has now increased.”

SHOCK OF ARRIVAL, LANGUAGE AND LIFESTYLE

What kind of experiences do these sought-after high-flyers go through in getting their PhDs in Australia?

From the shock of arrival, to problems with language that might worsen instead of getting easier, as the research project demands more; to tough chances looking for a part-time job to make the living allowance go further, especially if it is a university teaching job that’s wanted; to perennial visa problems; the unpreparedness of many academics, in different Faculties, to cope with international students, or for that matter to deal with overseas cultures; even to some racial cat-calling off-campus; International Students are in the way of calling their experiences “a challenge”.

Linda wattersonSo says Linda Watterson, (Linda Hong Bin Watterson),who came to Australia in the mid-1990s as one of Beijing’s new entrepreneurs on the way up.

Adopting a come-and-go lifestyle between the two countries, she took up higher-degree study in Australia in 2006, and gives an overview of the feelings of fellow students arriving and finding their way.

“It’s a serious change in lifestyle; for example, for Chinese students they miss the streets with many shops; you don’t just go to the supermarket…”, she says.

Yet most are well prepared:

“They don’t really stress out as they are highly capable people; they do well as far as I can see.”

Ms Watterson’s business in partnership with her husband was importing Australian mining equipment into Australia; she admits to doing well with that, and has been studying to build on what she learned with a PhD – a study of entrepreneurship in China, in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT.

Listing problems and plaints; like many others she puts command of English language high on the list, commenting that she has one friend who is “fully capable”, another who came good after two or three years, one other who “might be in trouble”, with most fitting into a general, improving pattern:

“For some their English is not good enough but … they are smart, and half-way through they pick up.”

A few academics who supervise these students will know both languages or at least know how to slow down when talking, easing the problem.

JOB PROBLEMS

Other worries, to Linda Watterson, include job problems.

Picking up casual work in a shop or restaurant, where the pay can make for an “easier life”, is a problem, although the university itself does help out with work on campus.

There is also, however, a bigger problem, where advanced level students want to do some teaching of younger students.

It is important to prospective academics to get such experience, as an entry in the resume for an academic post — especially in a country where official policy is to boost up its higher education and research by recruiting talent from overseas.

“I have heard in some Faculties it is different; we were never offered teaching work; only “English”  students got this, or some Europeans.

“Language should in a couple of years get to a state where you can maybe  do some teaching .

“The university is not very good at giving the students jobs like a research assistant’s job”, she says.

Moving on; do students encounter racism?

Not so much, to this seasoned observer.

A friend was spat at by a passer-by, sometimes students are told to “go back where they came from”, but it is little enough for them to “just ignore”

EASY PLACE, EASY PEOPLE TO KNOW

Bonnie Liu, (Lui Rui – Bonnie), also from Beijing, graduating with her doctoral degree in 2011, has much the same story,  three and a half years after coming to Australia to continue studies based around  independent television production  in  her home country .

“Here the whole world is accessible, and the pattern of life is pretty good”, she says.

“As a pretty independent person I found it easy to fit into life here, the people are easy to know and the multicultural environment is good.”

The hard part would be at the start, when most students are looking for help; and there were one or two incidents, mostly brushed aside, like trouble with a bus driver over handling change, leading the students concerned to make a complaint.

“I could not say if it was a race thing; it is really for individuals; I know some people get trouble, others do not”, says Bonnie Liu.

Getting ahead at the university seems more of an issue, with again the International Students’ complaint about a chance to build up expertise on the teaching side:

“We can’t get enough jobs … like I could not get many tutorials to teach. Most of my friends in the United States as PhD students got more teaching to do straight away.”

As for being a student here and then a graduate from Australia; students generally receive good benefits, and  at the end the degrees have good standing — an advantage if working in  China and other places.

“I am pretty happy with that”, she says.

THREE YEARS ON THE BEACH?

Falk Hartig“Doing a PhD in Australia, the biggest thing you have to explain in Germany is if you are going to lie on a beach for three years”, says Falk Hartig, half way through a PhD at QUT, a German journalist now studying overseas cultural policies of China.

Like Bonnie Liu he has discovered an Australian degree has good value.

It will sound more “international” than the thousands of “Doctor” credentials being earned back home, and he found Australia  was also a better location to do Asian studies than Europe, where there was less choice in his field.

Speaking and working in English was not a great problem, where “you realise your level”.

More of a problem was the high level of rents, difficult for students without good scholarship support, along with exchange rate movements that mean a more expensive Australian dollar.

Falk Hartig says he has no experience of racial trouble apart from hearing of late-night incidents where overseas students might be under some threat in the city; at times he’s had “feeling” of unease where drunks were around, and has decided there could be problems for young non-Australian women out after dark.

Yet that should not deny one prime attraction of the country when choices are being made:

“The image is relaxed. You can have a good life… It is more relaxed than the United States or England.”

He endorses the concerns of others about access to teaching experience needed for an academic career.

“After three years without a teaching record for getting a job afterwards , there will be no job, so people  will just leave the country.”

PLUSES AND MINUSES

University managers know the list of positives and negatives well.

thumb“We are not internationalising our home-grown academics by and large”, says Sharon Tickle, the acting  International Director at QUT.

She points out that aside from spending very limited time working abroad or learning languages, academics even when taking short-term trips for conferences will concentrate on Europe of the United States, not farther afield — culturally or otherwise.

While opportunities for cross-cultural training courses are taken up by staff, says Acram Taji, “there are academics who have done their degrees, and post-doctoral work at the same university, and then applied for a lectureship at the same university …”

Academics recruited from a non-Australian, and non-English speaking background can be a balance against that, and give the university access to different angles on learning and life.

University teachers in their turn have their trials with students coming out of a different culture, especially with language; most estimate they need to put in twice as much time, in intensive supervision, with non-English speakers – time not recognised or compensated for by their employers.

That extra work, Ms Tickle will admit,  is “a challenge for the supervisors.”

HELPING, AND HIGH MAINTENANCE

Prof. Taji  lists a pro-active set of measures to assist students who are, she says, both valuable resources and “high maintenance”.

Strict English language standards are applied, she avers, denying that research students are being “let through” with weak language skills, though it is said to happen at the lower levels — post-secondary or undergraduate courses.

She says the university gives incentives to Faculty administrators to contribute to payment for editing of students’ final work, to polish the language.

Other aid is organised, from student buddy systems to pastoral care in case of personal crisis.

A special problem for the International Students is that they need a new visa if extending their three-year study period; Australian students can go to four years, if needed, without such trouble.

On jobs, the Professor agrees that the off-campus casual jobs market can be tough on overseas students because of the play of cultural nuances and language, though many jobs are organised within the university itself.

Neither of the executives approached here could rate trouble with racism as a lead problem for International Students.

Sharon Tickle, returned from a visit to India where part of the task was to talk through the late-night bad experiences of students in recent years, mostly in Melbourne, said International Student organisations had been asked, and had reported few immediate concerns.

Acram Taji could recall complaints being registered, though ultimately being accepted  by all parties involved as due to “misunderstandings”, not racialist attacks on students.

“We do offer very comprehensive training to educate International Students on Australian culture, and vice versa”, she says.

“But we have not had problems with students coming in to complain that there are people who are racists.”

Higher education as investment for Australia, and its universities, is a life commitment for the thousands of rather young people  – most in their twenties – who check out the country as the place to make their first main contribution to knowledge, and change their name to “doctor”.

Talking to most brings out a simple theme: it will have its difficulties, but for persons of talent the place and its people have much to offer, and both parties look to be finding ways to make the investment turn out well.

thumbThe writer: Lee Duffield was for many years a journalist, editor and overseas correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He teaches and carries out research in Journalism at QUT. A Europe specialist, he is the publisher of EUAustralia Online.