Uniting our sector to help international students thrive

Jane Li
27 July 2023

Recently I attended the Parliamentary Friends of International Education event in Canberra hosted by the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA). 

The event, attended by government ministers, international education peak bodies and sector leaders, celebrated the return of international students to our shores. Importantly, the event also acknowledged the rich social and cultural contribution international students make to our nation. 

While these messages were uplifting and inspiring, there was also a feeling that we were speaking to the converted. 

Every person in the room, by the nature of their role, understands the amazing qualities of our international students and how they make our communities stronger. 

Every one of us has seen the challenges students have overcome to pursue their Australian study dreams, and has been inspired by their ambition, courage and intellect. 

Yet among the speeches delivered by dignitaries, one comment by Phil Honeywood, CEO of IEAA, has stuck with me – how do we strengthen our social licence to operate? 

While this sounds academic, it boils down to this: how do we, the people in the room and in institutions across the country, share what we already know with our wider communities? 

How can we, as a sector, give our students a platform to champion their achievements, so they are best positioned to thrive and deliver benefits back to their new and home communities? 

I believe it comes down to three areas: 

  • Setting up students for success before they leave their home country and continuing that support through their journey. 

  • Helping employers understand the benefits international students bring to our global workforce. 

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, celebrating the rich contributions international students make to all aspects of our communities. 

Setting up students for success and staying by their side 

IDP Education’s recent Emerging Futures 3 research highlighted that post-study work policies and programs are one of the most compelling factors influencing where international students are deciding to study abroad. It is not just about helping students with study opportunities – it’s about what comes next – and students want to commit to staying in their study destination if the work experience is available for them. We have a role to play in supporting them on this journey. 

While this research confirms what we know about welcoming policy environments helping to attract students to Australia, this is not enough to ensure successful student outcomes. 

If students are lacking transparent and official guidance when choosing Australia as their study destination, they risk being trapped in courses that don’t suit their post-study goals, exposed to substandard agents or institutions, or in living arrangements that are expensive or inadequate. This can lead to financial and mental health pressures which, when you add being isolated away from friends and family into the mix, is cause for concern. My colleague Simon Emmett wrote about this recently. 

The first step is making sure students are matched with the right course aligned with their career and long-term aspirations. 

Part of the responsibility for this rests with agents. Institutions and agents must have credible, trusted processes embedded into their operations to ensure students gain entry to courses that challenge them, inspire them and motivate them. 

IDP’s global size and established processes allow us to provide unbiased advice to students. Our education counsellors are not aware of commission details with our clients. In fact, last year we placed students into more than 11,000 courses in our six destination countries without any commission from an institution because those courses were the best fit for our students. 

While we understand not all agents can enjoy a model that separates commercial arrangements with institutions with the advice shared with students, more can and should be done to ensure students are placed into quality courses that match student needs. 

Once students are placed in the right course, agents and institutions need to ensure students leave their home countries fully aware of the study, work, social and living environments they will experience. 

Offshore and onshore co-hosted pre-departure briefings are one channel IDP uses, but there are many others. Our recently launched Thrive program is also helping foster a sense of connection and provides students with somewhere to turn to when in need. 

Strong collaboration between agents, institutions and services is key. 

Help employers understand the benefits international students bring to our workforce 

While our recent research has indicated that Australia’s generous post-study work rights attract students to our cities and towns, there appears to be a lack of understanding among employers about how post-study work visas operate. There also seems to be a gap in understanding the wealth of skilled graduates among our already present international student communities. 

A recent study on short-term graduate outcomes in Australia shows that international graduates often underperform domestic students in securing employment in Australia. Their pain points are mostly around lacking exposure to the Australian workplace and employers’ reluctance to consider international students due to a lack of awareness around visa status and concerns around language ability.  

IEAA has been leading the charge to educate our industry. The Broaden Our Horizons campaign demonstrated the value international students bring to the workplace by creating a more diverse range of voices and perspectives at the table. Outside of the work of IEAA, there is more that can be done to advocate for international students with Australia’s employers. 

Another positive example is the NSW Job Connect initiative by the NSW Government that helps to improve the perception of international students as valuable contributors to the Australian workforce. 

While institutions can do more to provide tailored career advice and support, a successful student outcome is a shared responsibility. Students also need to own the challenge of building their credentials and improving essential ‘soft’ skills. 

As an industry, we need to recognise and address the unique challenges they face in a foreign job market compared to their domestic counterparts. Tailored guidance and support is crucial. 

With the right support and guidance, coupled with students’ own proactive efforts, they are much more likely to achieve success in their career goals and improve their employability outcomes. 

I hope the momentum I saw in the room in Canberra at the Parliamentary Friends event continues, and the sector can work to deliver a strong message to employers and bespoke support for students. 

Celebrate the rich contributions international students make to all aspects of our communities 

As a former international student myself, this hits close to home. 

When I look across the media, I see outstanding international students being celebrated for their creativity, innovation and courage. 

Flicking through the Melbourne International Comedy Festival program, I note Dilruk Jayasinha is now a headline act. 

Belle Lim, former president of the Council of International Students, is now a cancer researcher at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. 

The 2016 New Australian of the Year, Gary Lee OAM, is now a prominent voice for inclusion and diversity in Victoria. 

When our community was hurting during the pandemic, international students made us stronger. Ralph Teodoro, originally from UAE, swapped his desk job for medical scrubs to help on the front line with COVID-19 testing in hard-to-reach communities. As did Divyangana Sharma from India, and many, many other international healthcare students. 

These are just a handful of exceptional international students who demonstrate the benefits that come from welcoming smart, ambitious people to our shores. But there are many more who don’t make the news. 

The big question is, what now? 

My call is for the Australian international education sector to continue to come together. 

We have an opportunity to show international students that we are with them, and here to raise their profile with employers and the wider community. 

Australia is a kind, welcoming and diverse community – thanks in part to our international students. 

Let’s build on the positive momentum we are seeing as students return to our shores, and set up the systems, attitudes and environments that will help Australia be a welcoming and supportive home for international students for generations to come. 

Jane Li is Area Director, Australasia for IDP Education, a global leader in education services.