Are universities keeping up with the changing needs of international students?

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Today is International Students’ Day – a day of international observance of the student community and a celebration of the multiculturalism of international students. It’s a day to appreciate what the international student community brings to their host nations, as well as reconsider what else we can be doing to help them better enjoy their student experience abroad.

With this in mind, today’s blog post looks at current international student satisfaction rates, as well as the changing international student cohort in Australia and whether Australian universities are keeping up with the cohort’s changing needs.

The international student experience

International students represent a significant resource and income source for Australia and Australian universities. Yet, according to the recent QILT Student Experience Survey results for international students in Australia, their satisfaction with the quality of their overall educational experience is only 67 per cent positive. Compared to the 73 per cent rating by domestic students, this falls short.

Given increased global competition (by student destinations such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany), Australia and Australian universities would be wise to level up the learning experience to (at least) match that of domestic students.

The changing mix of international students

Chinese students have long made up the majority of international enrolments in Australia. However, the number of international students from our other ‘top 10’ source countries has been changing.

In 2002, our next biggest cohort was Indonesia and then Hong Kong. India ranked 10th and Nepal ranked 28th.

In 2004, it was South Korea and Malaysia in 2nd and 3rd place respectively. India was 4th and Nepal was 32nd.

In 2005, India took 2nd place and has remained there, followed by South Korea. Nepal was 31st.

In 2013, Vietnam took over South Korea in 3rd place. Nepal had skyrocketed to 9th place.

In 2016, Malaysia took 3rd place from Vietnam. Nepal was 8th.

In 2017, Nepal took 3rd place and has remained there.

By 2021, even with COVID-19 disruptions, China remained our number one source country for international students (166,318 students), and India (97,613 students) and Nepal (44,637 students) have consolidated South Asia as the new region of growth for Australian higher education. The other countries in the top ten are Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, Philippines, and South Korea.








Indian students and the changing cohort of students in Australia

“As universities try to diversify their foreign student intake and wean themselves off a decade-long overreliance on the Chinese market, the number of Indian students granted a visa almost doubled between June and July, from just over 3,000 to close to 6,000 as visa backlogs were worked through by the Home Affairs ­Department following a boost to staff under Labor,” wrote Sarah Ison for The Australian, on 22 August 2022.

“The higher education sector is pushing Labor to lure thousands more Indian students with cheaper visas and easier working arrangements to secure the nation’s stake in a market set to produce 500 million graduates and undergraduates by 2035,” said Ison.

Yet, with the changing nature of the international cohort comes changing needs. According to a recent study by Kansal et. al., Alleviating cross-cultural challenges of Indian subcontinent students: University staff perspectives, while the cross-cultural challenges of international students in Australia have been well documented, much of this literature concentrates on Chinese students. Students from the Indian subcontinent face different challenges, particularly when it comes to learning and teaching styles, says the study.

“The growth in student numbers from the Indian subcontinent countries has increased exponentially in the Australian higher education system over the past decade. Unfortunately, this growth has not been accompanied by initiatives to address the distinctive cross-cultural challenges faced by this cohort.”

—Kansal, Chugh, Weber, Macht, Grose and Shah

For example, in many subcontinent countries, the teacher is considered a “guru” and students assume a more passive, rote learning role in the classroom. This is in contrast to the Australian system, which values critical thinking, independent study, and discussions with teachers as facilitators.

Another example cited in the study relates to perceived academic misconduct. “Students from the Indian subcontinent have grown up in an educational culture where it is considered respectful to the author to repeat published work verbatim or construct arguments based on existing sources without citing these sources.” This is in stark contrast to the Australian higher education system with its strict moral and contractual rules around academic integrity and plagiarism.

The study suggests that students who are struggling with financial, cultural, and social pressures can fall back on ingrained learning behaviours – and if these conflict with behaviours expected in the Australian higher education system, it could negatively impact their grades, and their wellbeing.

Mental health concerns higher for international students

A 2020 Orygen publication reported that international students are more likely than domestic students to experience anxiety, depression, wellbeing issues, and other mental health concerns. This is a concern, given that research has consistently shown a clear link between physical and mental wellbeing and academic performance.

A decline in international students’ mental wellbeing can be compounded by:

  • Academic pressure;
  • Financial stress;
  • Housing stress;
  • Work/income insecurity;
  • Isolation from friends, culture, and family;
  • Language barriers and cultural differences;
  • Anti-international student sentiment; and
  • A disconnect between expected experience and actual lived experience.

These issues were exacerbated when Australia’s borders were shut. In 2021, a poll of 600+ students by The Council of International Students Australia (CISA) found that:

  • “93 per cent of international students stranded abroad report[ed] mental health issues due to remote studying”; and
  • “36 per cent were considering or have decided to choose another country to pursue their studies”.

Help-seeking behaviour remains low

Despite a clear need for wellbeing support, help-seeking by international students remains low. “…Fear of repercussions for coming forward, lack of problem and symptom recognition, poor understanding of health information, cultural stigma associated with counselling, perceived service costs, and language barriers,” suggest that international students, compared to domestic students, face additional barriers to seeking help.

One study of Chinese-speaking international students living in Australia found that of the 54 per cent of participants who reported high psychological distress, only 9 per cent sought mental health services in the prior year.

A 2021 study, Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities for Improving the Health and Wellbeing of International Students: Perspectives of Professional Staff at an Australian University, by Deakin University’s Faculty of Health staff, Newton, Tomyn and LaMontagne found a “high prevalence, substantial impairment and consistently low receipt of treatment for mental disorders across a growing number of colleges and countries, including Australia.”

Safety is fundamental to student wellbeing

Physical wellbeing and safety are particularly of concern to international students. The 2021 QILT Student Experience Survey results showed that 96 per cent of international students cited personal safety and security as the most important reason for choosing to study in Australia.

Feeling safe while navigating a new country is an important part of student wellbeing. In a 2019 survey of international students, more than 50 per cent reported feeling less safe in Australia than they expected they would, with theft, workplace exploitation, automobile accidents and assault being the most frequently reported perceived threats.

A breach of physical safety can have dire consequences. A 2021 National Student Safety Survey found that “the harmful impacts of a victimisation experience have been shown to substantially affect a student’s wellbeing, academic performance, and continuation of their university studies.”

In addition, surveys have found that many international students are reluctant to seek help after a safety incident because of language barriers, or are unaware of how to seek support in line with their rights as temporary residents in Australia.

University leaders as agents of change

Over the last decade, there has been an evolutionary shift in the corporate world from ‘wellbeing as a benefit’ to wellbeing as part of “The Healthy Organization Maturity Model” articulated by Josh Bersin. The same can be applied to universities.

According to the model, level one is [student and] staff safety, level two is [student and] staff wellbeing, level three is “healthy [study and] work”, and level four is a “healthy organization” – where a strategic, holistic view of wellbeing is embedded in the culture, thanks to active leadership support.

This is not just a corporate initiative, it’s crucial to attracting students. A 2022 survey found that 96 per cent of prospective international students considered it important that their chosen university offered support for mental wellbeing.

Health-savvy university executives understand this and are becoming agents of change for university wellbeing. The best ones understand that prioritisation of wellbeing applies equally to international students as it does to (staff and) domestic students if Australia is to continue to attract international students at scale in the years to come.

Want to know more?

We invite you to read some of our latest university sector insights here:

For more information on how Sonder can help you to improve your student experience rates, we invite you to contact us here.

About Sonder

Sonder is an Active Care technology company that helps organisations improve the wellbeing of their people so they perform at their best. Our mobile app provides immediate, 24/7 support from a team of safety, medical, and mental health professionals - plus onsite help for time-sensitive scenarios. Accredited by the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS), our platform gives leaders the insights they need to act on tomorrow's wellbeing challenges today.

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