Why universities should invest more to support Chinese students

By Fran Martin

International students studying

Image: iStock

Providing adequate services to support Chinese students would benefit not only them but all students at Australian universities, raising the quality of education and fostering cross-cultural engagement.

Australian universities have been pushed to self-commercialise and become increasingly reliant on international student fees as a result of the long-term decline in government funding for higher education coupled with rising domestic student numbers. Students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) now make up the largest proportion of international students by a wide margin. In 2018, with more than 152,000 enrolments, they accounted for more than 38 per cent of international university enrolments, and their numbers continue to grow robustly year on year.

In this situation, Australian universities have expressed concerns about over-reliance on the Chinese market, especially in light of the prospect of slowing growth over the coming decade as China invests heavily in improving the quality of its own higher education system. But although Australian universities are eager to diversify their export markets, the reality is that, despite strong growth in enrolments from alternative source countries including India and Nepal, it appears unlikely that these countries will be able to match China’s demand for Australian degrees anytime in the near future.

In addition to university managers’ understandable anxieties about the paradox of a national public higher education system that is financially dependent on a single overseas market, others have raised concerns about the situation’s impacts on academic integrity, citing a proportionally small number of cases in which entry requirements and assessment standards have been compromised at some universities. Public anxieties over the political actions of Chinese students at Australian universities are also running high; in recent months, especially in relation to a handful of pro-Chinese Communist Party zealots challenging the right of students supporting democracy in Hong Kong to express their views on campus.

Obviously, these are important issues that must be taken seriously and investigated fully. In particular, there has been no comprehensive research done on Chinese students’ political engagements while in Australia. Media accounts of Chinese influence in Australian universities are generally based on a small handful of examples, while it appears that the overwhelming majority of Chinese students do not become involved in either Chinese or Australian politics while they are here. In-depth, holistic, methodologically rigorous empirical research in this area is desirable as part of a broader strategy to help us understand the experiences of Chinese students in Australia, and to determine what steps could be taken to improve both their experience and that of other students who study with them.

An issue that has received less attention, though,is how the rapid, thorough-going internationalisation of Australian higher education may impact education quality in other, less obvious but more pervasive ways that affect all students.

Course concentration compromises education quality

Like most people contemplating study abroad, before they leave home, Chinese students look forward to the opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and friendship that they think studying in Australia will bring. The future students I have met in China pre-departure have all expressed excitement about the opportunities they foresee to get to know Australian peers, learn about a contemporary western culture, and experience local social life in Australia.

However, after arriving and commencing their studies, many are disappointed. In some Masters-level courses in fields including Business, Economics, Finance, Accounting and related areas, students from the PRC reportedly account for over eighty percent of enrolments. Indeed, because of the imperative for universities to generate their own income, some courses are designed from the outset with the goal of attracting large numbers of international fee-paying students. The future that the Chinese students looked forward to of sharing a classroom with local peers is replaced in reality by the experience of learning alongside co-nationals, communicating with classmates in Mandarin, and finding oneself structurally isolated from non-Chinese students. A sense of disappointment sinks in as many find themselves trapped in a 'Chinese bubble': studying, socialising, and often sharing accommodation with other students from the PRC.

This situation is not only personally disappointing for the students, it also compromises the quality of the Australian education they receive. A significant component of the learning that takes place at university happens through students’ interactions with co-learners. Students learn from each other in both large-group activities - for example listening to and engaging with each other’s discussions with classmates, tutors and lecturers - and in the small-group assessment tasks that are now a standard part of many university curricula. Any student’s learning is enriched by the opportunity to engage with a wide diversity of peer input. This nurtures the learner’s ability to develop a sophisticated approach to problem solving, seeing issues from a variety of perspectives. Correspondingly, when the classroom lacks cultural diversity, learning is impoverished.

English skill should be supported by social interaction

A few Chinese students report that studying in Australia not only doesn’t improve their English language capacity, but that it actually declines while they are here. Perceived problems with international students’ English proficiency are usually framed through questions about testing systems and university entry requirements. When some students’ English ability appears inadequate for their level of study, the next step is usually to raise questions about International English Language Testing System (IELTS) thresholds and grading protocols.

But this overlooks a crucial factor that is well recognised in studies of second language learning: the social basis of language acquisition. No matter what difficulties some students may have with English fluency at the time they begin their studies, their best route to improving it is undoubtedly to mingle with English-speaking peers, socialise in English, and immerse themselves in the language as a routine part of daily life.

And yet, as outlined above, opportunities to break into the social world of English-speaking peers are often elusive for Chinese students. The most extroverted and socially skilled among them do manage to develop cross-cultural friendships, but the majority find it difficult. This is not only because of Chinese students’ concentration in certain courses, but also due to the difficulties they face in befriending locals in those courses that do enrol a more even mix of international and domestic students. Experience teaches us that simply putting international and local students together in the same classroom does not automatically lead to friendships being formed. While the Chinese students are keen to make connections with their Australian classmates, local students often appear diffident or uninterested - or perhaps simply lack the necessary cross-cultural skills. A common sight in the mixed classroom is a split social scene: Chinese international students working and socialising with each other, and locals with locals. In private conversations, each group complains about the other, the Chinese students often feeling snubbed and excluded by the locals, and some locals resentful of the Chinese students’ presence.

In this far-from-ideal situation, active intervention from educators is clearly required. But teaching staff are generally not trained in managing the internationalised classroom, whether in terms of facilitating productive discussion that engages and respects divergent political opinions, or in terms of enabling students to build friendship bridges across cultural difference. Instead, a typical response by educators is to go with the flow of most students’ tendency to cluster in co-national groups. The problem of these groups’ mutual alienation from each other could be addressed through the investment of resources in systematic, high-quality training of teaching staff to enable us to structurally facilitate productive cross-cultural interactions. This would not only nurture cross-group socialising outside the classroom to support international students’ continuing development of high-level English skills, but it would also enrich the learning experience of all students by fostering cross-cultural understanding and a cosmopolitan outlook.

Local students need cross-cultural engagement lessons too

The absence of cross-cultural friendships is detrimental not only to Chinese students, but also to their local peers. Many domestic students voice hypothetical support for cultural diversity and a cosmopolitan attitude - and yet, as noted above, when faced with actual classmates from overseas, seem unwilling or unable to make meaningful connections.

In some cases, this may result more from a lack of concrete skills than from conscious antipathy toward international peers. Across Australian universities, international students comprised on average 28 per cent of all enrolments in the first half of 2018. The proportion of international students enrolled in most Australian secondary schools is far lower. Many domestic students’ first experience of an internationalised classroom thus happens at university. Therefore, local students are often not pre-equipped with the skills required to make effective cross-cultural engagements with international classmates.

It would therefore be valuable for universities to work pro-actively to develop in domestic students both a deeper appreciation of how cross-cultural connections can enrich their own education and life experience, and practical skills in interacting and making friends across the lines of culture and nationality.  

Education outcomes are affected by a lack of broader support

For any student, education takes place not in a vacuum but in the context of wider social experience. Educational outcomes may be affected by a number of stresses experienced outside of study, for example in relation to problems in work, housing, finances, family, sexuality, physical and mental health, and so on. All of these issues are commonly faced by young people and impact frequently and significantly on domestic students. International students, separated from the safety nets of family support and cultural familiarity, are even more vulnerable.

While recently arrived permanent migrants have available to them a range of settlement and transition services provided through the Department of Social Services, international students are largely excluded from these. Instead, in the Australian system it is universities that are responsible for protecting international students’ welfare and providing for their pastoral care, under the ESOS legislative framework.

However, Chinese international students face many problems that universities are ill-equipped to deal with. These include:

  • Routine wage theft in casual work and disputes with employers
  • Exploitation in rental agreements and disputes with landlords
  • Difficulty understanding the Australian police and legal systems and what to do if one is the victim of a crime
  • Difficulty understanding the Australian health system and navigating insurance claims through Overseas Student Health Cover providers
  • Inadequate access to culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health support services
  • Inadequate access to culturally and linguistically appropriate sexual health support services 

While most universities provide some of the requisite information to commencing international students, it is generally provided all at once around the time of students’ arrival, and usually only in English. At that time and in that format, it can be difficult for students to take it in. When a crisis strikes, they often find themselves unprepared and scrambling to locate the necessary information and services.

In times of crisis, resources provided in one’s first language are far more effective and likely to be engaged than those in a foreign language - a fact that is recognized in governmental provision of multilingual support for permanent migrants. However, with a few notable exceptions, neither governments nor universities generally provide multilingual information to international students. In this context, Chinese students often turn to Chinese-language information available online within the local Chinese community. This information may or may not be accurate or up-to-date. It is often provided by commercial migration and settlement agencies. In times of acute stress, students may also turn to evangelical Christian churches, which, unlike universities, often target Chinese-language settlement support information and services directly to the international student community.

It is questionable whether universities’ effective outsourcing of settlement and welfare services for Chinese international students to commercial agencies and churches is the best way of meeting their needs. Since the provision of pastoral care for international students legally rests with universities, arguably, a greater proportion of the income derived from their fees should be re-invested in the provision of more effective and consistent social and settlement services to replace the current uneven patchwork of information and service provision. This would benefit both social and educational outcomes.

There is much to be gained from a greater investment by universities in providing systematic, appropriately targeted support for Chinese international students’ educational and welfare needs while they are in Australia. During the years of their study, these students are part of Australian urban and university communities, and universities have both a legal and an ethical responsibility to provide adequate services to support their education and life here. Doing so would benefit not only Chinese students themselves but all students at Australian universities, raising the quality of the education they receive by fostering cross-cultural engagement and cosmopolitan outlook. Improving the quality of Chinese students’ time in Australia also has the potential to generate national soft power by leaving those students who return to China after graduation with a more positive impression of the country. As things stand, the marketing of Australian education to China represents a missed opportunity to advance human-to-human level connections and understanding between young people in the two countries.


Associate Professor Fran Martin is a Reader in Cultural Studies and ARC Future Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. She is currently conducting a five-year study of the experiences of Chinese international students in Australian universities.

Disruptive Asia is a thought-leadership project by Asia Society Australia launched in 2017. It presents – through long-form essays – new perspectives and policy recommendations on how Asia’s rise is impacting Australia’s foreign policy, economy and society and how Australia should respond. Disruptive Asia deliberately looks at both external aspects of Australia’s relationship with Asia (foreign policy, business connectivity, international education) and their domestic implications and manifestations (community relations, leadership diversity, education settings and capabilities).


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