In a webinar event jointly organised by CISA alumni and hosted by The PIE News, panellists said issues such as mental health, wage theft, cultural adaptation and student wellbeing remain problematic.

However, these issues still aren’t very well understood, which makes effectively addressing them a significant challenge, voiced stakeholders in a session which explored the challenges and opportunities in Australia’s international student representation.

“Australia is a great destination, but there is so much more we could be doing and should be doing”

“Things haven’t changed that much… Just takes a different form,” said Danny Ong, now partnerships manager, Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University.

Ong said from his time in student representation and his observations now, the data that is available is simply demographics like age and gender, while factors such as where students live, their financial situation and their student experience remain unstudied.

This, he said, leads to a lot of assumptions.

 “There’s no coordinated information – an international student barometer is also like a token response to student experience. But it doesn’t explain the nuances, the differences, the diversity of the student experience.”

Ong said he believes knowing more about the international student cohort helps to appreciate the diversity of international student groups rather than how they’re often viewed now – as one homogenous group.

With increased understanding, he said there can be more tailored support for each segment of the sector.

Arfa Noor, a founding delegate and the second-ever president of the CISA went a step further – saying if as much was invested in understanding student welfare and the true experience of students as is spent on marketing and recruitment then real change could happen.

“Australia is a great destination, but there is so much more we could be doing and should be doing,” Noor said.

“For example, there’s never been a proper study or research into international student suicides.

“If as much was invested in understanding student welfare as is spent on marketing and recruitment then real change could happen”

“We know they occur, we know some reasons but no-one is willing to fund a project to properly analyse the problem because there’s no marketing spin to it, there’s nothing you can take from the research that you can make into a nice glossy brochure.”

She said the unfortunate reality is that when it comes to the crunch, student welfare often loses out to financial interest.

“As much as we care about student welfare and student wellbeing as individuals and institutions when the bottom line is in question we often see them as secondary to what we do. It immediately becomes about revenue.”

Associate dean (International) at the Melbourne School of Engineering, The University of Melbourne, Shanton Chang, made an interesting point that many families of international students do not often see the value of the role advocacy.

“Student representation can be seen as undesirable as it takes time and students feel pressure from families to concentrate on study,” he explained.

He said student leadership is also not looked upon favourably by families:”‘Don’t go to another country and be a troublemaker’ is the view, even amongst their peers who ask ‘why they don’t just leave things be’”.

Noor added that international students are not keen to be known as “trouble makers”, so they become ‘friends’ of the sector and are then unable to hold sector and government accountable and that’s where issues continue to happen.

Former National Union of Students and NLC member, Sharon Cook, added that sustainable funding of student representative organisations remains an issue with reliance on grant funding, membership fees and private sponsorship.

“Grant funding generally has clear guidelines and parameters, but other funding is less so and is often dependent upon the organisation providing the support.

“It can depend on the agenda and the organisation providing funding and how it’s procured and what for,” she noted.

Ong agreed: “The national body is not adequately funded or support to really represent or research the diversity to in-depth levels”.

He says the sector is taking steps in the right direction, but consistency and an ongoing focus are required.

“The sector is trying to evolve and cater but most responses have been reactive, not proactive,” he added.

“Every institution needs people working there empowered to support students regardless of location”

“Always when something significant happens the sector will respond then nothing will happen for a few years, then it flares up again.”

The panel concluded the only way to tackle the issues and bring about change is a coordinated approach by all stakeholders at all levels.

“Grassroots work is so important. It’s where you can have those concrete discussions and come up with solutions,” said Chang at The University of Melbourne.

But, he added, clear strategies from the top down to allow those grassroots issues and solutions to rise up and be seen by senior executives is critical to success.

“Every institution needs people working there empowered to support students regardless of location.

“People need to be empowered to be advocates,” Chang added.

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