Dean Forbes


Plenary Session

Australian Universities Quality Forum

Alice Springs, 1-3 July 2009

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University

When I began preparing this presentation earlier this year, I sketched out the parameters and then dutifully started to plough through the various bits and pieces of legislation and good and bad practice in dealing with international students.

Then, in late May reports surfaced of an Indian student assaulted in the western suburbs of Melbourne.  A tsunami of activity rolled across Australia.  The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and several Federal and state politicians released press statements deploring attacks on students.  Suddenly, international student safety was the focus, the international student experience (ISE) had become the hottest issue in international education, and the way I approached this paper changed significantly.  More about that later.


If you think back to your days as a university student, the current international student experience might be something that it is better not to know too much about.  For undergraduates, at least, it is a time for new experiences and, hopefully, growing up.  There are many ways to do that, most  involve risks, and not all are strictly legal.

But universities have duty of care responsibilities towards their students.  They also strive to provide a quality student experience, mindful of the importance of overall student and graduate satisfaction in building the universities’ reputation and attracting future international students.

Australian universities generally do a reasonable job.  The AEI 2007 survey of international graduates found that 81% were either very satisfied or satisfied with studying in Australia.  Some 83% would recommend studying in Australia to friends or family.

There are two important issues of definition regarding the ISE. 

First, for some, a narrow definition of student experience applies.  The university’s focus should essentially be on the student’s formal learning experiences and their overall experience of university life. 

For others, it is nothing less than the student’s entire engagement with the university from initial contact, through recruitment, arrival, learning and university experience, graduation, employment, and their experiences as alumni. In addition, it includes their living arrangements, accommodation, safety and security, part-time work, and social inclusion.  Universities are not directly responsible for all these matters, but are generally engaged in most of them.

The second key aspect of the ISE depends on whom we are referring to as international students.  Mostly the ISE refers to full-time students enrolled in award programs in Australia. 

However, universities also have international students undertaking short non-award courses, offshore students, and students studying on-line or in other forms of distance education.  And also, of course, our domestic students travel abroad, and hence become international students after they depart the country.

The experience of each of these categories of students deserves attention.  But not here.  I will confine myself to onshore international students, as these overwhelmingly represent the largest number of Australia’s international students.


The international student experience tsunami that rolled over Australia from late May this year was something that many in the sector had feared.

Why?  In 2003 some problems with a few English language colleges in New Zealand had resulted in the Chinese government posting on a website warnings to prospective Chinese students about studying in New Zealand. The result was New Zealand experienced a calamitous decline in Chinese students.  The experience drove home a key point: one or two local incidents involving international students can have severe repercussions for the whole education sector.

Concerns about the experiences of international students in Australia have been brewing over a number of years.   Worries have ranged across several issues affecting sustainability, but inevitably including student housing, employment (both as a student, and after graduation), social inclusion and safety.  The interconnections between these four dimensions of an international student’s life are critical.

A Victorian government Overseas Student Education Experience Taskforce, worried about the rapid growth of Victorian international students in VET, produced a report in late 2008.  The NSW Government followed establishing a Ministerial Taskforce on International Education in November 2008, which is expected to report in August 2009.  The South Australian government convened a Taskforce on the Overseas Student Experience in May this year.

Momentum increased further in 2009.  The National Union of Students (NUS) called for a government inquiry in April, and the Greens announced in May that they wanted the Senate to launch an inquiry.

The Deputy Prime Minister (DPM), Julia Gillard, in a significant post-Budget statement on international education on Tuesday the 26th of May, also zeroed in on the international student experience.  She noted media reports on student safety, and also expressed concern about an incident in her own electorate. 

Three announcements formed the backbone of Gillard’s statement.

•    The Federal, State and Territory Joint Committee on International Education would look at measures to enhance the student experience

•    Student representatives would be invited to a Round Table with the DPM to discuss key issues such as accommodation, safety and welfare, which would be brought to the attention of the inaugural Ministerial Council on Tertiary Education

•    The Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act 2000 would be reviewed in 2010-11

Universities Australia welcomed the DPM’s announcement the following day (Wednesday 27th May), adding that Senate support for the Student Services and Amenities legislation before Parliament would enable universities to further enhance the facilities supporting the student experience.  Steerage through Parliament subsequently was delayed by the government due to anticipated opposition.  Many fear the government will abandon it.

However, the issue suddenly heated up when, during the same week the DPM made her statement, a series of stabbings, including of Indian students, occurred in Melbourne. The incidents, accompanied by television footage of the wounds to one student, received wide press coverage in Australia and India. 

The impact was sufficient that on Friday the 29th of May Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke to Manmohan Singh, his counterpart in India, assuring him that Australia welcomes Indian students and the Indian community in Australia.

However, momentum was building.  A group of Melbourne’s Indian students held demonstrations over the last weekend in May.  The protest was eventually broken up, with some force, by the Victorian Police, and the footage appeared on television. 

News stories shot around the world and received significant coverage in national Indian newspapers.  In the words of A.K. Tareen (2nd of June), the South Australian representative in Chennai, ‘the newspapers here have dedicated the front page to report on these incidents for nearly a week now, [and] the TV channels have been running almost round the clock programs dedicated to the incidents…worried parents breaking down on TV has further kicked up mass hysteria leading to a number of protest marches in New Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere’.  Tareen’s description reminded me of the Australian press coverage of Schapelle Corby’s arrest.

Stories of attacks over a long period of time were said to indicate a lack of action by government, and as evidence of anti-Indian racism in Australia.  Some Indians wrote letters to newspapers pointing out the violence against foreign tourists in India and suggesting the press was over-reacting, but it failed to affect the saturation coverage.  Australia’s international education competitors started spruiking how safe it was to study in their countries.

Media reporting in Australia also increased, centred on stories of more widespread concern about the plight of international students, tempered in some cases by reporting of initiatives, such as the proposed Roundtable, designed to deal with student concerns.

New initiatives were announced, and existing activities given a new urgency.  Stephen Smith, the Minister for Foreign Affairs announced the establishment of a Taskforce chaired by the National Security Advisor, to coordinate the government’s response to the crisis.  The Victorian government announced it was speeding up the implementation of its 2008 Taskforce’s recommendations, and the Victorian Police established a community reference group to get a better understanding of the problem and liaise with the Indian community in Victoria.

The university sector also stepped up its activity.  Universities Australia (UA) released a Discussion Paper, commissioned in early 2009, that would form the basis of new guidelines for enhancing the student experience and student safety.  The UA Deputy/Pro Vice-Chancellors (International) Committee met with heads of diplomatic missions in Canberra on the 4th of June, and the next day prepared the Universities Australia Action Plan for Student Safety.

The International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) and AEI (Australian Education International) accelerated work on their project on good practice in enhancing student well-being outside the learning environment.

But press coverage continued.  Indian students in western Sydney marched over the following weekend demanding additional support, and street demonstrations continued for days (the 7-9th of June). 

Up until this point the focus had been on Melbourne and then Sydney.  On Thursday the 11th of June I attended a late afternoon meeting at Education Adelaide, along with a range of people from government and education institutions.  News came through of an incident in Rundle Mall, the major shopping street, in which an Indian student was punched in the face, and taken to hospital.  An education reporter from The Advertiser had witnessed the incident, and had summonsed a photographer.  The next morning’s front page featured the story, and another story accompanied by a photograph, in which an Indian student’s car had been torched. 

The NUS released a report on the 11th of June titled International Students’ Security and Safety Needs in Australia.   A week later, on the 18th of June, the Senate’s Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee announced it was to launch an inquiry into several aspects of the international student experience, and headed by student safety.  It is due to report on the 16th of November 2009.

Tragically, just this week a Chinese student was murdered in Tasmania. 

If the success of the Australian response is to be measured by the number of taskforces, inquiries, and public statements emanating from politicians and people in the education sector, then the score would be a perfect 10. 


So, what went wrong in Melbourne?  Why did it so rapidly escalate into a national and international issue?  What does it tell us about university and sector-wide quality assurance frameworks?

There is a widely held perception that a significant factor in the Melbourne events was the rapid growth of international students, particularly males of Indian origin, in vocational and technical education (VET) colleges in Melbourne in 2008.  This, it is argued, created an unsustainable situation, and not just in Melbourne and Sydney.  In Adelaide international students in the VET sector increased by 77% in 2008, with a significant component of that in new private VET colleges.  Indian students increased by 78%.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that this is a full explanation.  Nor can we step back and say the incidents are isolated, or simply no more than might be expected given the large numbers of international students living and studying in Australia. 

We need to acknowledge that there are underlying problems that must be addressed.  For example, an on-going challenge for Australian universities is to improve the interaction between Australian and international students.  The 2006 AEI survey found that 81% of international students would have liked more Australian students as friends.  Almost half thought Australian students were not interested in being friends with international students.

Australian universities are subject to a complex web of regulatory and quality assurance arrangements with regard to international students. 

The centerpiece for universities is the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act and the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students.  First implemented in 2000, the National Code of Practice was reviewed and updated in 2007. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) also undertakes regular audits of university compliance with the provisions of the ESOS Act. 

The decision by the government, without any consultation with universities, to again review the ESOS Act indicates it believes changes are necessary, particularly in the context of the government’s intention to transfer responsibility for ESOS from DEEWR to the new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

In addition to government, universities have a collective position on international students.  Universities Australia has a long-standing Code Of Practice for the Provision of Education to International Students.  It includes a brief mention of living arrangements, including accommodation, social customs and mores.   Its primary orientation, however, is to the core practices of universities rather than the broader international student experience.  It needs to be updated, embracing a more comprehensive definition of the student experience, if it is to remain relevant.

One way of looking at how universities monitor the international student experience is captured by the expression ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’. 

There are overall measures that primarily focus on teaching and learning, such as the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) and the Graduate Destination Survey (GDS).  International student data can be extracted and broad patterns of student satisfaction measured.  AusAID students undertaking university courses are regularly surveyed.  The AEI survey of international students in 2006, and the follow-up survey of international graduates in 2007, also provides some insight.

A recent mechanism for systematically collecting international student’s views is the annual survey known as the International Student Barometer (ISB).  The ISB data covers 69 variables which are clustered into four categories: arrival, learning, support and living.  The survey statistics are supplemented by a considerable body of student comments from the survey, enabling a reasonably nuanced understanding of students’ views to emerge.  About 15 Australian universities currently use the ISB, and many believe it should be more widely adopted in Australia.

Flinders University participates in the ISB survey.   It enables us to benchmark Flinders performance against the other five universities that are members of the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) group, and over 100 international universities that use the ISB.  In the 2008 ISB survey Flinders had the highest level of overall student satisfaction among the 102 world universities surveyed, ranking number one in satisfaction with overall arrival and support services, 2nd in overall satisfaction with living, and 3rd in satisfaction with the learning experience. 

The ISB has this year been extended to transnational education students, with a pilot survey for 10 universities, five of which are IRU members.  Preliminary results suggest that the survey instrument needs further development before it will be able to provide reliable information of comparable quality to the onshore student survey.

Because internationalisation more broadly is such an important dimension of Australian universities, and also an area of risk, it has been an important focus of the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) activities.  AUQA’s review of internationalisation in Cycle I audits noted the significant number of commendations of international student support services.  The report concluded positively that ‘the universities are proactive in identifying and responding to the support needs of onshore international students, and addressing risks to the success and satisfaction of international students’ (Stella and Liston 2008 p 28).

Initially at least, AUQA’s Cycle II audits have generally included internationalisation as one of the two major audit themes.  This helps ensure that universities quality assurance processes around the international student experience will receive some attention.


In large part the processes I have referred to thus far focus more on the international student’s experiences at university, and things associated with university life, rather than broader experiences in the cities and towns of Australia.

The locus of concern in the case of the Indian students early this year was dissatisfaction with aspects of living in Australia, particularly student safety.  Regular reports of often-unreported assaults at train stations in parts of Melbourne have been widely known about for at least the last couple of years.   However, this must be put in perspective.  The AEI 2006 survey found that 77% of higher education students felt they were treated with respect and courtesy by people in Australia, such as neighbours, shop assistants and landlords.  Of course that means that up to almost one quarter thought otherwise.

Universities must, quite properly, take a share of the responsibility for improving international students experiences in the community.  Many, if not all, universities have in place activities that seek to help students with their living arrangements.  These include pre- and post-arrival information; assistance with finding accommodation and part-time work; seminars about life in Australian cities and the services available; the location of religious facilities (eg mosques); and briefings on safety issues by local police.   One of the challenges is attracting students to these information events; young males, in particular, are often reluctant to participate.

Student organisations both on-campus and off-campus also have a role.  Until the introduction of voluntary student unionism, the National Liaison Committee (NLC) for International Students was an active, though not always effective, participant in international education.  In 2008 a new group took control of the NLC, with a primary focus on the safety of international students.  However the new-look NLC has not managed to secure the confidence of the universities.

The National Union of Students Inc (NUS) has stepped up its engagement with international students.  It has made public statements, met with officials, endorsed rallies supporting international students and, as mentioned earlier, called for the Senate inquiry and produced the International Students’ Security and Safety Needs in Australia Report – 2009.  NUS and CAPA, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, also held the 2009 International Student Forum: Exploring Domestic-International Student Engagement in Melbourne from the 28-30th June.  Hopefully NUS and CAPA will become clear and thoughtful voices for international students.

The benefits of having international students in Australia are sufficiently large and spread across many areas that the responsibility for the student experience rests partly with all three levels of government, and partly with the community itself.

Perhaps the weakest links in the chain are the mechanisms for connecting students with the local communities in which they live.  More sophisticated partnership models are needed to improve these aspects of the international student experience.

Case Study: Education Adelaide

Education Adelaide is a very good example of the way two tiers of government and the universities have worked together to address a range of issues associated with the international student experience.

Established in 1998, Education Adelaide is a partnership between the South Australian state government, the Adelaide City Council, and the three universities in Adelaide: Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia.  Its current budget is $2.5 million.

Four state government departments are represented on the Board by the chief officers: Education and Children’s Services (DECS); Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology (DFEEST); Trade and Economic Development (DTED); and the SA Tourism Commission (SATC).  It reports to the Minister for Employment, Training and Further Education, and the Premier also takes an active interest in it.

Education Adelaide’s initial focus was attracting international students to Adelaide. A re-thinking of its role took place in 2003, and a new strategic approach was developed and implemented in 2004.  Two of its three strategies continued to focus on the consistent branding and promotion of Adelaide as a place for international students.

The third strategy was to strengthen Adelaide’s reputation as an education city by building and supporting closer connections between international students and Adelaide’s communities.  The strategy absorbs around 12% of Education Adelaide’s budget.  Some initiatives are directed at the Adelaide community, because the support of international students by Adelaide’s residents is critical to sustainability. Initiatives include:

•    A city wide focus on the provision of international student accommodation

•    Promotional activities within Adelaide highlighting the importance of international students to the city

•    Regular meetings with community and professional groups such as representatives of multicultural organisations and professional employers organisations

•    A forum for dealing with crises, such as safety issues

There are also some structural differences about the international student situation in Adelaide that has been revealed in research commissioned by Education Adelaide.  For instance, the various heat maps of where international students in university and VET programs live shows they tend to concentrate in middle income areas of the city such as the CBD, of course, or in suburbs such as Bedford Park that are close to where they study.  As a result, they are less likely to be traveling through risky areas at night, than they might be in bigger cities such as Melbourne.

Other Education Adelaide initiatives are directed at the students:

•    Backpacks welcoming all international commencing students to Adelaide

•    Free or discounted tickets to AFL football matches (Port Power, unfortunately) and events in the Festival Centre

•    A reception for commencing students in the Adelaide Town Hall hosted by the Lord Mayor

•    A reception at Government House for graduating students hosted by the Governor

•    A Study Adelaide Ambassadors Program

•    A guide to the city for Muslim students

There are around 30,000 international students in Adelaide.  Education Adelaide can only directly deal with a small proportion of them.  It is effective for three reasons.

First, it complements what the universities are able to provide to their international students.

Second, it has been able to build partnerships with a wide range of organisations in the community on behalf of all the education institutions.

Third, it provides a regular forum for decision-makers in government and the universities to discuss city-wide issues associated with international students, including concerns about wayward providers, and it has a direct line to the Minister and the Premier.


The last few months have underlined the risks of accepting larger and larger numbers of students.  Our cities are struggling to keep up with the provision of suitable living, studying and working environments.  And when bad things happen, student concerns spread globally and rapidly through twitter, photographs on mobile phones, and email.

A key issue confronts federal and, perhaps more importantly, state governments.  It is not a dilemma, but what Douglas Adams and John Lloyd call an ‘abalemma: the agonizing situation in which there is only one possible decision but you still can’t take it.’  Australia’s international student numbers have grown extremely fast for more than a decade.  Now is the time to shift our focus from growth to sustainability.  Invariably that means asking hard questions about tradeoffs between growth and the quality of education provided.

In parallel, significantly more effort must go into ensuring improved student safety, which means dealing more effectively with closely connected matters including housing, employment and social inclusion. In recent years, an increasing proportion of the university and VET students are intending to get a job and stay in Australia.  If students are unable to get jobs whilst they study, or if graduates struggle to build the careers they expected, we will have created an unstable and unhappy group of young people.

We also need to think about whether there is a distinctive Australian experience for students.   Something that is more enduring than access to sandy beaches and the internationally acknowledged quality of life in Australia’s cities.

In Australia, we want to build prosperous knowledge cities.  Universities have a key role.   So too do international students.  They contribute to building the knowledge base, both as producers and consumers of knowledge.  And they have an increasingly vital role underpinning the economies of our cities.  Governments now know a lot about the economic impact of students.  They know far less about the significant role that international students have in building the knowledge base of our universities, and very little at all about how to support the building of a connection between international education and Australia’s aspirations to create a high-performing knowledge society.

We must think more strategically about how we can encourage more inclusive, knowledge-rich cities.  Cities that both benefit from the diversity of knowledge resources that students bring to Australia, and at the same time, create a more stimulating, tolerant and inclusive environment for international students.  If we could get this right it would improve life in the cities for all residents and it would assist the universities to provide international students with a distinctive Australian experience.


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