What could these results mean now for universities trying to support international students during a global pandemic crisis? Whilst universities initially and now some state and territory governments have come out strongly in support of Australia’s international students with emergency funding and support services, messages from the federal government have been anything but supportive. Regrettable utterances from the highest levels of the federal government regarding Australia’s fourth largest export industry contrast starkly with responses by the Canadian, NZ and UK governments, which have recognized both past and future benefits of thriving international education programs in those countries. i-graduate and UK universities will in coming weeks survey international students about their COVID-19 study experience to understand in even more detail what is working and what can be improved in this strange new online remote world. Meanwhile in the Land of Oz, federal government indifference to the plight of international students coupled with now almost daily reports of COVID-19 linked racist attacks in Australia means happiness must be a distant memory for those who have lost their part-time jobs, are unable to receive financial support from parents under lockdown in their home country, are cut off from campuses and contact with fellow students and are struggling to remain engaged in studies rapidly converted from face-to-face mode to online, with varying levels of success.
In our 2019 article we made the point that universities could use their ISB data to better target support for international students and improve satisfaction with their overall experience. This remains true in the current context. Universities have not only moved studies online – every form of service from student support, Chaplaincy, sporting clubs (now e-sports) and counselling has been or is now being shifted to online provision. What was clear from our research was that the feelings of connection students have with other students, with institutional staff and with other groups such as employers and alumni, contribute strongly to happiness and student well-being. How can these connections be maintained in the current climate? Institutions should not lose sight of the impact and importance of these non-academic elements of their students’ experience, even whilst trying to ensure that fundamental academic and support programs are delivered online to equivalent service levels as were the norm pre-COVID 19. Facilitating social and career-related connections among students is challenging enough in a campus environment – even more so with social distancing and lockdown orders in place. They are however no less important now as before to the outcomes international students are looking for – employability and related returns on the considerable investment of years studying overseas.
In 2019 i-graduate added new questions to the ISB exploring student anxiety and stress. Globally, 33% of international students said they were somewhat or very concerned about being able to complete their studies; 31% indicated they were quite often or always stressed. Imagine what the results would be like from a survey of this year’s cohort. Domestic students globally were even more concerned about stress (41%) and completing their studies (40%).
The point is that institutions need to not only make sure that the temporary online study experience is as positive as it can be, or that support services continue to be delivered effectively. They also need to ensure that their students get the outcomes they came here for in the first place, regardless of the current circumstances – including good contacts for their future and employability. This is a monumental task, and all the more reason for the federal government to step in and support institutions hosting international students with the types of emergency funding packages that universities and territory and state governments have developed. As it stands, Australia’s COVID-19 generation of international students will probably return home grateful for the help their institutions gave them, and the for the help they received from some city, state and territory governments around the country. But they are also in danger of remembering two words from our national government that will have the greatest impact on their impressions of Australia – ‘go home’.
And that won’t make anyone happy.