The Morrison government has recently announced they are encouraging more domestic student enrolments through an extensive reshuffle and increase of HECS fees. This modification was made in order to ‘guide students to the required occupations’ and make up for the loss of the large income from international enrolment. Once again, the government has only taken the financial gain of international students into consideration. Education services are Australia’s fourth-largest export. Various student bodies have been lobbying for the government to provide financial support to international students, to no avail. Instead, universities have had to take it up to their own hands to provide some form of financial support for international students.
According to Times Higher Education, the ANU has consistently ranked as the most ‘international’ university in Australia, based on the number of international enrolments and its global reputation. It is now more than ever that the ANU needs to lead by example. As the front -running Australian university, it should be providing adequate support to the international students’ community; regardless if they are doing distance-learning in their home country or are currently roughing it out in Australia.
It is commendable that ANU has been providing financial support for accommodation needs to international students ever since the travel ban to China has been in place. However, more needs to be done. International students need to know that ANU has got their back and will do whatever it takes to provide the necessary support to ensure they have the best educational experience, regardless if it is done off-shore or on-campus.
The ANU should firstly identify that on-campus and offshore international students are likely to be facing two different forms of complex issues. On-campus students are likely to feel extra isolated and homesick since going home to their home country may not be an option. Even for students who have the option to return home, it remains difficult as only as 350 international students will be selected for the ANU-UC Pilot Program, where a chartered flight will bring students back to Canberra in time for Semester 2. At this moment, what is clear is that international travel to and from Australia is likely to be banned until 2021. This means that many international students who are currently living in Australia are unlikely to see their family and friends for at least another six months. This will inevitably increase levels of homesickness, which will lead to other risk factors, such as social isolation and depressive episodes. Therefore, the University needs to pay extra attention to international students who are currently in Australia, in order to ensure that they have a wide social network and protective factors to get them through this isolating time.
This could mean increasing pastoral support in residences and providing more opportunities for international and domestic students to network and form friendships. The ANU needs to acknowledge international students’ hardship and provide more opportunities for international students to develop a sense of belonging. These steps are easier said than done and requires extensive communication between ANU and the wider international students’ community. Consultations need to be done in order to understand their specific needs and genuine commitment needs to be pledged by the University. Apart from the on-campus international community, ANU also needs to strategise and find a way to reach out to off-campus international students. They are a tricky group to understand as off-campus international students are likely to have established a strong social network prior to the pandemic, but equally vulnerable to social isolation due to the lack of supervisory support.
Yet international students who are currently in their home country should not be forgotten either. The ANU has successfully moved into online learning in Semester 1 relatively quickly. The University provided the first group of affected international students, Chinese students, the option to defer their studies or enrol in long-distance learning. Prior to the COVID-19 situation, ANU has generally preferred in-person learning and online learning is often not an option for international students, due to visa requirements. It is natural for students to be doubtful of the quality of teaching that ANU can provide online. The ANU needs to quickly adapt to the feedback from Semester 1 and find effective ways to add value to the learning that offshore students can access.
Plenty of students have requested that the University reduce its hefty fees as students are potentially learning and gaining less from long-distance teaching. Based on the current financial climate at the ANU, it is improbable to expect the University to reduce school fees as it may lead to more complicated problems in future. The ANU needs to find a quick and effective way to convince their offshore international students that their $20,000 per semester fees are still worth paying for. This could mean tweaking courses to be interesting and engaging online, with fair and effective assessment methods. This also means that the University needs to avoid having anxiety-inducing exams that are worth 80%, simply due to logistical issues to implement an assessment mid-term. This will also mean that course convenors need to be more creative than ever in finding ways to make their courses and assessments value-for-money.
These are not easy adjustments to make. Particularly due to the short time frame involved. However, if ANU wishes to continue being the most ‘international’ university in Australia and maintain its stellar reputation amongst international students, sincere and effective commitments need to be made now more than ever. I believe that ANU does care for its students and is trying to make the best of the situation. However, in this frustrating situation that the world is caught up in right now, it is extremely easy for us to assume the worst. ANU needs to play its cards right and convince their current and prospective international students that they do care, and they are not simply ‘cash cows’ to keep the University in the green.
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