Promoting the rights of international students

For the first time, foreign students in Australia have their own ‘bill of rights’. This follows the release by the Australian Human Rights Commission of a set of principles to promote and protect the rights of international students, which it says have too often been ignored by individuals and organisations.

Outlining the principles at an international conference in Melbourne last week, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke said the aim was to create discussion and awareness of student rights “where sometimes it does not exist”.

“This awareness is essential, whether in terms of the obligations of organisations working with international students, or of the support students should expect during their time here,” Szoke said.

“As we discovered during the course of our consultations [in developing the principles], the latter is particularly important, with many students not knowing where to seek help or what their entitlements might be.”

The principles are set out under four main headings, with summary translations in 10 other languages:
  • • Enhancing the human rights of international students.
  • • Ensuring all international students have access to human rights and freedom from discrimination protections.
  • • Understanding the diverse needs of international students.
  • • Empowering international students during their stay in Australia.
Szoke said the principles filled a gap: they encouraged collaboration, informed the development of policies and services, and acted as a guide to individual students and student organisations.

“In short, they offer a foundation on which the international student experience can be based – not just for the benefit of the students themselves, but for the benefit of all Australians,” she said.

“They encourage a collaborative approach among all stakeholders to better promote and protect the rights of international students [and] complement recent policy and service reforms implemented by the Australian, state and territory governments which focus on international students’ individual rights and responsibilities.”

Szoke noted that international student enrolments in Australia had risen from fewer than 100,000 in 1994 to more than 550,000 last year – 74% of them undertaking higher or vocational education courses.

She said many students had saved for years for the chance to further their education; to gain skills and qualifications that might not be available in their country of origin; to pursue a particular career, “make a life or expand their children’s horizons”.

“In doing so, they forsake strong connections for a place in which they may not know a soul. They must learn quickly then to navigate a breadth of unfamiliar systems and conventions in what is often their second or third language.

“Despite this challenge – and to their credit as well as to Australia’s – what many students find is very positive, the vast majority reporting high levels of satisfaction and vindicating this country’s reputation as a popular study destination.”

But she said the “positive experience” was not shared by everyone and quoted examples of student negative reactions, including a computing student from Indonesia who said: “It is a lot more individualistic here. It’s really difficult if you don’t have friends because you don’t have many people that care about you.”

Talking about his accommodation, an engineering student from China said: “I don’t have what you call a room. Mine is a living room partition. It’s not really locked up so I prefer to call it my shack...”

Szoke said the persistence of such stories indicated that while Australians acknowledged the economic benefits of providing education services to overseas students, this sat ambivalently beside the inconsistent welcome that some new arrivals found.

Szoke was formerly a commissioner with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission at a time when Indian students in Melbourne experienced a spate of savage attacks that received wide publicity across India and resulted in a sharp fall in Indian enrolments.

She said some students experienced poverty, exclusion from health services or affordable housing, sexual harassment and exploitation, excessive transport costs, and prohibitive fees to access government schools for their children.

“These are just some of the disadvantages confronting those who rightly come expecting more. This is in addition, of course, to the occasional physical violence we know has been experienced by some in recent years; as well as the discrimination and hostility that many report.

“All this means that some international students experience life in Australia as second class members of the community, despite their hopes of a first class education. This is notwithstanding the fact that international students pay for this education; are taxed on any income they earn here; and are required to comply with domestic law like anybody else.”

She said the Human Rights Commission saw a need for “something universal” to underpin existing initiatives in its broader recognition of human rights, a document that was clear and simple, and could be applied to a range of services and situations. With the support of international students and representative organisations, the commission had created a set of broad and straightforward principles.

* Last month the European Association for International Education adopted an International Student Mobility Charter, with the overall objective of keeping students safe and protected during their time studying overseas. It covers concerns such as the need to secure international students’ rights and welfare, the importance of intercultural competence and the need for information about studying and living in host countries to be easily accessible.