Here's How We Can End the Threats to International Students

Jordin Isip for The Chronicle

June 27, 2010

The number of study-abroad students worldwide has doubled in 10 years, and the trend appears to be a positive one for everyone involved. For international students, study abroad can deliver learning, degrees, language competence, and migration opportunities. For the countries and universities that offer such programs, it can deliver revenues and skilled researchers.

But delve deeper and you will find that although most students succeed abroad and have satisfying experiences, certainly not all of them do—and some have major problems, which can range far beyond loneliness and difficulties adjusting to new cultures. Some international students are victims of terrible crimes. Unfortunately, their security is not adequately ensured by the countries where they study, which still treat them as outsiders and their rights as privileges that can be ignored. Even though global mobility in education has rendered such an approach obsolete, national regulations have not kept pace.

For example, three years ago in Melbourne, Australia, gangs of local youths of mixed ethnic backgrounds carried out a series of assaults on the growing population of South Asian students there. The police did not seem to have the resources to stop such "curry bashing," the term used in street talk, and the response of the Australian federal and state governments was to deny that South Asian students were facing a special problem and to defend Australia as a "nonracist" country. Matters climaxed on January 2, when a 21-year-old accounting graduate from the Punjab, Nitin Garg, walking to his evening workplace, was stabbed and killed by a gang of young men.

Australian officials again denied any evidence of ethnic targeting. "Everything possible is being done" to ensure justice, they claimed. (It took take five and a half months to gather enough evidence to arrest two local teenagers.) The national government's position is that safety and policing are matters for state governments. Yet the states have little money and are reluctant to take responsibility for protecting international students.

The Garg case is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is emblematic of how international students' lack of citizenship in the countries where they are studying works against them. In a nationbound world, governments are better at protecting local citizens from mobile persons who are threats from outside, such as suicide bombers, than at protecting mobile persons from outside, such as international students, from attack by local citizens. It is difficult for national or local governments to explain why they should spend tax money on noncitizens when many needs of the local electorate go unmet. It is a problem of motivation—determined by taxpayer accountability and electoral politics, which are decisively framed and limited by the nation-state itself.

Meanwhile, policies and legal concepts applied to students abroad talk of "consumers" and "the market." But student security involves much more than consumer protection in the context of trade in the marketplace. It is an issue of comprehensive human rights.

Five years ago, supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, I worked with several colleagues from other Australian universities to conduct social research on the security of international students. We conducted 200 interviews at 11 Australian universities with students from 35 countries, as well as with 40 local students. The results are being published in a book, International Student Security.

We defined student security as including the full range of issues affecting the empowerment and protection of international students: financial support, housing, health, safety, work issues, and relations with their universities and the government's immigration department. We also looked into international students' personal networks, communications, and intercultural issues. Rather than impose our construction of the students' problems on them through a survey, we developed an interview format, with a former international student as the interviewer, that gave students room to raise and frame issues. We conducted the empirical work for our study in Australia, but our research and that of other scholars show that the underlying issues are common, to some extent, to all countries.

What did we find? The experience of international students differs from that of local students in three ways. First, the lives of international students are more marginal, lonelier, and less informed than those of their local peers. Second, the majority of international students in Australia face at least some barriers to communicating in English that affect not just academic progress but also daily life. Problems of abuse or discrimination are often associated with communications issues. Third, there are pronounced differences between local and international students in areas where cultural identity are at play, not just in cross-cultural relations but in looking for rental housing, seeking a job, and so on.

Consider the housing problems of international students. Whether by choice or necessity, many crowd into households of 16 students or more. Such structures should be classified as boardinghouses and subject to inspection, but their owners usually evade such oversight. In January 2008 three Indian students were burned to death when their home, which had no smoke alarms, caught fire because of a faulty electrical system. International students also have problems obtaining health insurance and medical coverage, as well as many other services that local students take for granted.

Almost half of the international students interviewed said they had experienced cultural hostility or prejudice. A small number complained about the actions of their universities' administrative or academic staff members, but by far most of the problems occurred outside the campuses. A large proportion of interviewees had been abused on the street or on public transportation. In such cases, they had no process whereby they could claim rights and seek redress.

Students also experienced difficulties when they held jobs in shops and other workplaces, when dealing with local customers and sometimes with their supervisors. For example, international students' visas limit them to 20 hours of work a week during the semester, but many students work more than that. If they complain about working conditions, their managers can threaten them with exposure to the immigration authorities.

What should be done to improve the safety and security of international students? For them, security means not only protection but also the capacity to operate as free human agents making choices. For many international students, acquiring communication skills is almost as important as acquiring degrees. Universities in English-speaking countries should make English-language communication a formal requirement for degree status.

National and state governments should also subsidize affordable housing, for a mix of international and local students, in areas where students study and work. The governments should also require inspections of students' rental housing. They should provide supervised transport, especially at night. The police should patrol hot spots where violence is occurring or might occur. International students should receive adequate information about safety and security upon arrival in their new countries.

The fundamental problem, however, lies with nations' regulatory frameworks, which should be modified for a globalized world. We must find ways of moving international-student security up the policy agenda of national governments, multilateral forums, and global agencies. Australian international education, for example, is now regulated through the Education Services for Overseas Students Act. It imposes obligations on provider institutions, mostly in relation to consumer protection and immigration compliance. But safety on campus is not mentioned. The act does not cover students' lives in the community outside the campus, where most problems of security occur.

International students have the same needs as local students and should be accorded equivalent rights and protections—except in a few areas, such as voting in national elections. A more comprehensive and rights-based approach to the security of international students could be obtained through bilateral negotiations between the countries that send and receive them. China, India, Malaysia, and other nations should seek a systematic regime of protection and respect for their citizens who study in other countries. As a pattern of bilateral negotiations became established, common global standards could emerge.

What is required is a set of global protocols involving all relevant nations. Indeed, international education could lead to the development of global approaches that could ultimately apply to other, more difficult forms of cross-border movement of people—labor and business migration, political refugees, and the growing number of people displaced by global climate change.

As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989), it is "utterly wrong and unfounded to draw the boundaries" of our respect and concern for people "any narrower than the whole human race." Human rights should be not be confined to local citizens or stop at the border of any country.


Simon Marginson is professor of education at the University of Melbourne. He is an author, with Christopher Nyland, a professor of international business at Monash University; Erlenawati Sawir, a research fellow in international education at Central Queensland University; and Helen Forbes-Mewett, a research fellow in sociology at La Trobe University, of International Student Security, just published by Cambridge University Press.