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What is the big issue for international students?

This contribution has been submitted to Webdiary by a student in the Online Journalism unit for the Masters in Media Practice and Masters in Publishing courses at The University of Sydney as part of the unit's assessment. The topics covered in the pieces awaiting publication are interesting – and diverse. We hope that Webdiarists will enjoy reading them, as well as giving these aspiring journalists plenty of constructive commentary.


What is the big issue for international students?
by Xiaoli Pei

As more and more international student are coming to Australia, education has become a big export industry. However, some social issues concerned with overseas students are becoming stubborn.

According to a report in The Australian on August 28, 2008, 299 international students were sent to detention centers in Sydney and Melbourne from 2006 to 2008 due to student visa problems.

According to the article, the reasons for the cancellation of their visa were varied. Some held expired visas, but some visas were canceled because of issues with their study such as poor attendance rates and failing their courses.

Why do the international students have the attendance breach issues? In the article, senior psychology lecturer Christopher Lennings of the University of Sydney discusses the loneliness suffered by international students and the isolation they feel because of the language barrier and culture shock.

As I am an international student, I can understand this situation. Although I have some English skill, when I came here, I still felt stress and it has already influenced my study. I became very sad and worried about whether I could finish these subjects successfully. When I talk to international students, most of them have the same situation. Qun Gao, international student of Arts Faculty of the University of Sydney, said although her English skill already satisfied the requirement of her major and she studied at the language school in Sydney for a couple of months before she began to university, she still found it difficult to keep up with her classmates. This situation makes her very sad and influences her study.

Has it become a big issue for international students? Lidia Nemitschenko, head of International Student Support Unit (ISSU) of the University of Sydney, said most of the international students suffer because of the language barrier and culture shock. Some will come to the ISSU find support on their own initiative. However, some use negative ways to deal with this situation. Failing subjects, they did not come to the lectures and did not answer any contact even their family for a long time.

The language barrier and culture shock has become the big issue for international students but it is a natural phenomenon. As international students, we should deal with this situation rather than let it influence our study. We should find the support through the means available such as ISSU, international office of the university and so on. At the same time, we should improve our English skills and take the initiative in making the acquaintance of local people to reduce the culture gap.


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creating awareness

Hi Xiao Li,

I, along with many, was shocked to read about the treatment of international students. Your article reminded us of the culture shock and general challenges facing international students, and that local students can take for granted when studying.

You brought to light not only the deportation requirements, but the horrible treatment endured by students in this situation.

While there are many ways to get help and to find support, it's creating awareness of these options that seems to be lagging. You have helped to educate those who may not know where to look. Thanks for a great article!

Missing the point entirely

I'm not sure what is happening to tertiary education in modern Australia, particularly at The University.

There seems to be a misapprehension arising that Universities are for studying and achieving results as the reward for hard work. No wonder standards are falling.

The whole concept of University is to have fun, exchange ideas and root around as much as civilly possible. It's also about learning to take the piss (and be given it).

Don't work students, get involved, talk, discuss. Forget the assignments, you can always do a post.

As far as the language barrier goes, when I was doing Psychology we acquired a well-respected, well-credentialed, much (for those days) published guest Senior Lecturer from Poland. One assumed he knew his stuff but, as he spoke practically no English and that that he did speak was incomprehensible anyway, the only challenge was the booklist. Equally, Ross Parsons' lectures on Bankruptcy were so whispered and incomprehensible that a few of us just sat upstairs playing 500. John Ball was so boring lecturing Torts (the most intellectually fascinating part of law apart from Equity and Jurisprudence) that most of us could not be bothered getting out of bed to listen to him. He was a challenger for the title of worst lecturer of all time at which I think he was just pipped at the post by Alison Turtle (RIP). Sadly, John is still with us. Alison's lectures on social and cognitive psychology were soporific but her lectures on the History and Philosophy of Psychology were simply incomprehensible (and by that stage I had my Hons in English Literature). There was a Stats lecturer who couldn't add up (even when transcribing his notes to the blackboard) if you got him after lunch. He and Ron Dunlop almost single-handedly kept the Staff Club going and profitable. Both lectured me. Ron was a fan.

Lex Watson told us how a "senior Liberal politician" [it was obviously Billy McMahon] had gone down on his knees and begged him to go to bed with him. What that had to do with Government I, I have never quite understood.

Give me a rest, students, cut the bullshit, think about the concepts not the marks and get out there and have fun. Oh, and while you are at it, join my campaign to save the second-hand bookshop.

Different point of view

Xiao Li, thank you for giving visibility to this delicate topic through your article. It was shocking to find out that about 300 students have been kept in detention centres for visa related problems.

I always thought that the Australian Immigration policies were severe (I've been through the impossible and paid a lot of money just to get my student visa), but not that severe. However, considering that copious amounts of students move to Australia every year to complete their studies, I understand that the government has the duty to adopt strict measures in order to keep the situation under control. I met many students who were working without a regular work permit and for more than 20 hours a week, breaking various immigration laws: what would it happen then if the government was not adopting severe measures?

At the same time as an international student, I know perfectly that many students go through hard times during their stay in Australia. Language barrier, culture shock and money issues are just a few of the problems that they encounter in their everyday life. But these problems should not be used as an excuse. Never.

Studying in another language requires preparation and devotion. I personally find it challenging and frustrating at the same time. I have studied English for more than 10 years, but I still face problems every single day when it comes to speak or understand people. For this reason when I started the Master of Publishing at the University of Sydney, I was totally surprised to see that many other international fellows were accepted just after a few months of study in a language school. How can their English be academically good enough for such a difficult course? Universities should have more strict policies in terms of accepting students from overseas, otherwise they might lose credibility and reputation.

Talking about your article Xiao Li, I liked the angle you touched. Perhaps you could have interviewed more people (maybe an employee at the immigration office?) in order to give a more exhaustive analysis of the issue.

Attitude is the most important thing

Hi, Xiaoli, in my opinion attitude is the most important thing when you try to settle in other countries. English has been a big problem for me until now However, I still have lots of problems with grammar

I don’t think English can be the issue which could stop me settling in Australia, or cause me not to attend classes. In my opinion, international students have so many positive ways to deal with English problems. When I was in New Zealand I couldn't speak English. However, I made heaps of Kiwi friends on the soccer field. I'm passionate about food, so I found a part time job in a Kiwi restaurant. I talked about how to do fusion cooking with those chefs, I cannot speak English properly but I can try my best to explain my ideas. I know we've all got a lot of things in common, and it's really interesting to know what people I want to say.

If you really want to overcome problems with English you have to find a way to break through - you have to take the responsibility for yourself, otherwise nobody can help you. For some of the troublemakers the only thing those locals want to say to you is to tell you to go back to your country.

Thank you for sharing

Hi, Xiaoli, thanks for sharing the information. I want to say that international students should be prepared when they decide to come overseas for studying. In your story, you pointed out that many international students are facing language problem and culture shock. I agree with your point. As an international student, I am facing language problem and culture shock as well.

I went to New Zealand for study when I was 17 years old. I still could remember how difficult the situation was. When I studied at high school in NZ, I chose media study as one of my subjects. When I attended my first class, the teacher told me that I was the only international student in this class. I was so scared because of the language problems, I felt extremely difficult to understand. I lived with a friendly Kiwi family, but I felt very lonely.

However, I attended all my classes on time and I asked questions when I got confused. Although I was the only international student in my media study class, my classmates were all nice. They helped me with my assignments and invited me to their parties at weekends.

Therefore, it’s ok to tell people that you have problems, but the problems can not be your excuses for not continuing study. That is the attitude problem. And this should not be existing. International students spend huge money on Uni fees. Don’t let the language problem and culture shock become your excuses. Every time when you are thinking give up, ask yourself: Why you came here? If you know the answer, then solve the problems and keep going! Always remember that it’s your own choice to go overseas. Then don’t waste the money, don’t waste your time, and don’t waste your life!

A lovely evening

I spent a lovely evening on Wednesday with a group of young Chinese students, a good old fashioned Aussie barbecue put on by their instructor. They sang Chinese songs, I taught a couple the brown jug polka to Tell me Ma, did the waltz with a young lady who could not stop smiling, and they all sang Click go the Shears like a bunch of union blokes from outback Queensland.

Just what one needed after a funeral to feel better.

And their English was extremely good.

They were exceedingly chuffed to shake the hand of the Scot, knowing that it had once shaken the hand of Chairman Mao.

They had not heard of the book Mao's Last Dancer which surprised me, or heard of the dancer himself.

Isn't it always the way, you often learn more about your own country from foreigners?

One local student

This sure is a very interesting issue. However, sometimes it is just too difficult for international students to improve their English. Yes, as media students studying in the Arts faculty of University of Sydney, we have many opportunities to communicate with other local students.

However, the situation is not the same with international students who are enrolled in other programs, such as Accounting and Finance, especially at the postgraduate level. One of my Chinese friends who are doing a Masters degree in Accounting said: “There is one local student in my class, the rest are Chinese. So, he is actually the ‘foreigner’ in our class.”

This may sound a little exaggerated, but it shows how hard it is for international students to better their English and learn the culture. However, this is not the only problem that international students have to face.

International Importance

The University of Sydney should have more strict IELTS levels to get into a degree in the first place. It seems that money outweighs credibility

I have been in a couple of classes where I have been one of a handful of Australian students in a class of say twenty. Unless you do group work you don't really get to talk with international students. They are generally very quiet, reserved and shy.

I chatted with two Chinese students after completing a class at the end of Semester 2 last year. I asked if they enjoyed the class, and if they understood everything clearly. They both said they hardly understood anything the lecturer was talking about. The only thing they needed to understand was what the assignments were about to be able to complete them successfully to gain a pass mark.

With today's translation sites this makes it much easier. Put the English words in, press enter and shabaam there you have your foreign language to guide you through. I'm sure the reverse is also done.

Good luck to all.

PS: This in no way refers to all international students

Your hands are there for a reason

Xiaoli, thank you for bringing this topic to light.

I was appalled to read in another article also recently published by The Australian that a good number of these students have been detained for months, some even years, in these centres. I’m still trying to comprehend why the Department of Immigration would opt to hold them for so long.

I sadly have to agree with Julia that money seems to be at the centre of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s more lenient screening rules. We as international students pay exorbitant amounts in fees to study in Australia and there are times when my fellow classmates and I often feel like they want to squeeze more out of us.

But I pass no blame. I made the conscious decision to come to a well-known institution in a foreign land and receive its accreditation. By doing so, I have to be willing to abide by its rules and pay its rates. Like Bianka, I feel that if an individual makes the choice to study abroad, they need to be willing to accept that hard times will arise, but this makes the reward at the end much sweeter.

Many institutions, like the University of Sydney, offer free English tutorials, paper editing, and support groups. Sadly, I’ve witnessed how many foreign students who could greatly benefit from these services don’t bother using them.

Foreign students need to step up and take responsibility for their time here in Australia. To quote the words of humorist Sam Levenson: “If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.”

Fellow student's comment

Hi XiaoLi Pei, first of all I have to say thank you for this information; I am shocked about the fact that so many international students end up in Australian detention centres! And that according to the article Australia is the only country in the world to ‘lock up’ overseas students - who pay a ridiculous amount of money to study here – makes this whole issue even more appalling.

Against this background it is funny that from September 1st 2008, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has changed the student visa assessment levels for 52 countries because of the supposedly “improving visa compliance of many international students” which are “positive signs for Australia’s international education industry” (see http://www.immi.gov.au/media/media-releases/2008/d08076.htm). An economic decision? Without much doubt. I totally agree with Bianka that an important step such as studying abroad should be well thought through before coming to a decision. Financing these studies is one issue; speaking the language in which the studies are to be undertaken and being aware of cultural differences is another.

I am an international student too and to me the key to making our studies here in Australia successful is a good self-assessment about one’s strengths and weaknesses and the willingness to integrate oneself as much as possible into the new environment. But on the other hand I also believe that universities here in Australia should take the fact that international students fail units because of poor language skills more seriously. It should not be possible that international students who don’t meet their course’s language requirements could still be admitted if they undertake a language course for a couple of weeks before semester starts. Sure, this is clearly an economic decision reached by universities that make their money to a large extent from international students’ tuition fees. Eventually though, this practice is detrimental to concerned students, their fellow students and to the university’s reputation in general.

XiaoLi Pei, your topic is a very hot issue and I found your comment piece really interesting. I think it would also have been valuable to talk to non-Chinese international students and ask them about their experiences and if they face the same challenges. I would also suggest adding hyperlinks to the University of Sydney and maybe to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Richard: Let's see if the reformatting sticks this time. Julia, could you (and anybody else who isn’t) please type your comments directly (ie not pasted) into the box. We are receiving an unusually large number of misformatted posts, so you're cooperation would be luvverly.

Surely language first

Surely command of the language must come first. It would have made no sense at all for me to go to Pakistan if I had been required to study in Arabic or Urdu even though I could read the former. The language of instruction in the Lahore Post Grad uni was English - though that may have changed now as there was a movement to make it Urdu.

I would have thought that overseas students here should first be required to be proficient in English, and if not spend at least a year full time in English language training, or longer if necessary, to become so.

It is ridiculous to import students just to take fees off them, fail them because they cannot pass due to the language problem, and then if they fail deport them.

How can anyone become proficient as a doctor or dentist or in any profession if they cannot properly understand the language of instruction?

I do not know how hard tonal language people such as the Chinese find English is to learn and write. What is the biggest problem faced?

Accent I am sure does not help. Even I cannot understand some Engish speaking folk - especially some of those from Florida. Our strine would be hard on foreign ears I should imagine.

Let's be honest!

I, as an international student agree, that for some students the language barrier and the culture shock might lead to failing their classes. However, it is to say, that, all international students should be aware of these problems BEFORE coming to Australia. 

Of course, it is not easy to attend exams or write essays in English, when it is not your native tongue. But therefore I had to do the TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language) to prove, that I'm able to keep up with the Australian students. It is logical, that one have to have English skills at a certain niveau to pass classes.

Although, I have to admit, I thought I wouldn't be that hard to study abroad. At my home university international students generally get a bonus and often better marks to balance the disadvantage they have because of their language skills. At Sydney Uni it is not like that. But, I think, this is a good thing, because it challenges you to improve your English skills.

Surely it is not motvating to get bad marks. However, the University offers enough possiblities to help. There is the Learning center, which offers free units to improve writing, presentation, time managing and lots of other skills  you need at university. Further, the International Office tries to help with all problems coming up, too.  

Besides, to be honest: A lot of international students (I don't include all) don't come to Australia to study. They want to travel, party and have a good time without study stress. That is often the reason why they don't attend classes or even fail.  

Certainly, you are right! International students have to deal with a lot of difficulties. They might feel alone, are homesick and struggle with their studies. But in my opinion, young adults should be grown up enough to value most of the difficulties they have to face, when they study abroad. 

Richard:  Like everything else, Bianka, practice makes perfect.  Your written English skills are already far ahead of many.

Big pressures

This article makes some really good points and if you could make the structure more clear it would be better.

I agree with you that language barrier and culture difference lead to many problems of international students:

Language barrier is the biggest problem students will face after them stepping out of the country. It is especially true for the students who did not lay good language foundations in domestic. The language barrier will not only affect the professional learning, but also will relate to whether students can quickly go into the local community. Only when you carry out diligent studies and bold communications, you can learn language better.

Overseas students face deeper-level differences. Those are caused by different cultures and thinking ways between Eastern and Western cultures. Chinese students are more affected by oriental culture. They remain a single person or just making friends from the same region. Their social circle is limited. I have a friend who stays at home and plays online games after classes all the time. He is basically isolated from the outside world which leads to worse studies, resulting in a vicious circle. Therefore overseas students should participate in more social practices to improve their communication skills and integrate into local life.

From my personal experience, I have something else to say.

"Dine" problems

Many students are school boys when they are in China, they get used to eat in the school canteen and never go to kitchen to do dinner. They do not know how to cook. However, food consumption in Australia is relatively high. Since they can not adopt foreign eating habit, it is better for students to learn some basic cooking skills before they go abroad.

Educational system differences

Chinese educational situation of some majors are different from foreign countries, in particular, the differences in numerous social science majors. These differences make some overseas students fell embarrassed. For me, I am a bachelor of media study in China; however, I am not even familiar with some of the basic theories of the west. So many professional theories I need to re-start the learning. The obscure and difficult theories hit me heavily. My plan of traveling Australia can only be postponed.

Cash cows led to slaughter?

Hi Xiao Li, your article was an eye-opener - it's shocking to know that international students are being treated this way in Australia, while having had to overcome homesickness, culture shock and sometimes a language barrier. And let's not forget that they've had to pay exorbitant tuition fees. If not for international fee rates, universities would be nowhere near as fat and smug as they are! Since when did skipping class and failing a course become grounds for deportation? I'm appalled.

It was great to have an international student's take on studying in Australia where English is not their first language. Kudos to you for dealing with everything in such a sunny way.

Problems not all unique to Australia

Xiao Li, I can really relate to the issues you raise as I was an overseas student once in Pakistan and faced a lot of problems I was not prepared for.

Language barrier; arrived inappropriatedly dressed into a Muslim country;  locked in at night from 6pm behind 6 foot high walls; no support base whatsoever; no contact with any other western national for a year; poor administration of the scholarship scheme I was under so the first six weeks without money to pay accommodation and for food - arrived at beginning of Ramadan so no food all day in the hostel;  my canvas stretcher bed in the hostel stolen so slept on the concrete floor for the year I was there;  didn't know one was expected to bring own blankets from Australia, so no bedding at first; difficulty getting to the lecture campus - we were six miles out in the desert with no transport other than a bus that kept breaking down usually dumping us in some poverty stricken side street to be chased by beggars - all quite an experience all up. Yet it finished up being one of the happiest years of my life. So don't despair, hang in there. You will look back and laugh, hopefully. 

However, as for the formal study - I too skipped a lot of classes due to those difficulties. What I learned in that year could not be found in any book anyway. I guess had I been in Australia I would have been arrested and deported, but frankly I don't think anyone even remembered I was there, least of all the Australian government which only contacted me after ten months to apologise for not paying its share of my living allowance - and before it did, it required a statement from my faculty that I was actually attending classes. Seems the reach of the bureaucracy in Australia is rather long. Had I not been able to provide the piece of paper no doubt they would never have paid up at all.

However, the difference is that the Pakistanis seemd to just assume that I had a right to be there and never asked questions - so we could take a leaf out of their book. They are lovely people - very sad to see what is happening over there now. 

That we arrest students for failing a course is shameful and unacceptable. Where is the fair go we speak so much of?

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