Importance of Intercultural Education for International Students

Importance of Intercultural Education for International Students in Australia. (Repost)

International students represent a large economic and international relations investment for Australia. Australian universities are increasingly relying upon overseas students for their revenue, but these institutions are not adequately addressing the special learning, linguistic, cultural and religious needs of these students. Despite their Australian education, international students experience various difficulties in finding work in their field of study after they graduate. Poor English-language, communication and problem-solving skills are the biggest obstacles to securing ongoing and satisfying jobs. Employer biases regarding international students are equally a problem. Below, I provide a demographic overview of the international student population in Australia. I argue that a stronger focus on the socialisation of international students is likely to increase their educational and career satisfaction. 

Demographic Background

International students contribute $15.9 billion to Australia’s economy through tuition fees and living expenses.  International education has increased by 94 percent since 2004. This sector now represents the third-largest export industry for Australia, generating profits that are 50 percent larger than tourism-related travel.

The most recently available and nationally-representative data on international students comes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These data show that the number of people entering Australia on student visas increased by 108 percent since 2002. Around 56 percent of all international higher education students were studying at the undergraduate level and 44 percent were postgraduates.

While the overall net international student population is at an all-time high, the proportion of international students in universities has dropped by 10 percent since the mid-2000s. This is due to a change of Australia’s immigration program, which is currently granting twice as many vocational training visas and a slightly smaller proportion of tertiary student visas than five years ago.

While most international students go into the tertiary sector, Chinese students do so in larger proportions (64%), while Indian students are nowadays more likely to go into vocational training (55%). Thai international students tend to undertake English-language courses (77%), while a significant minority of Malaysian students (14%) and Indonesians (12.5%) come to Australia to do postgraduate research.

Historically, migrants with university qualifications were more likely to qualify for permanent residency under the skilled migration program. Yet since Australia changed its immigration policies, international students in vocational courses are not necessarily gaining permanent residency.

Employment Outcomes

My analysis shows that the majority of these students are going into low-status vocational training courses that do not lead to permanent employment. International students in Australia are increasingly unable to find work that is meaningful, and so they are engaged in precarious, underpaid and menial jobs that do not suit their Australian qualifications. 

Engineering students, IT specialists, accountants, business majors, technicians and trades people who come from non-English-speaking majority countries are especially likely to have trouble finding work in their profession. Indian students and to a lesser extent Chinese students with accounting degrees have the greatest trouble finding work. By 2008, only around 20 percent of Indian and Chinese accounting graduates were employed in professional occupations, in comparison to 80 percent of their counterparts from English-majority countries and almost 70 percent of their Australia-born counterparts.

Medical professionals aged in their 20s are faring slightly better, but they are still less likely to be working in their field in comparison to international students from English-majority countries such as the UK, USA, Canada and South Africa. 

Employer Bias

Part of the issue is that Australian employers do not see international graduates as viable candidates, even when they have been educated in Australia. To some extent, surveys show that the English qualifications of a portion of international students is inadequate. This is no wonder, when international students come here to do a vocational course hoping to later transfer into university, but then find they are unable to do so. They start off attending cooking, hairdressing and accounting courses, and they get stuck. Taking vocational training in an expensive but poorly ranked course is unlikely to improve these students’ English skills. But not all international students lack English proficiency. The problem is more systemic.

Intercultural Education

Various studies show that international students are having trouble being accepted in Australia. They come here thinking they will be able to mingle with Australian students and learn more about Australian culture. They report feeling disappointed that Australian students do not make them feel welcome. This is especially the case amongst students who don’t have a strong command of English. These students are also less likely to seek out English language support. This phenomenon is poorly understood, but there is some evidence to suggest that a mixture of not knowing how to seek English language help as well as a fear of shame and stigma are likely to prevent students finding the right level of support.

International students also report feeling as if they received poor career guidance. They end up with unrealistic expectations of what their job prospects will be and what is expected of them in an Australian workplace. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission has also identified that international students face racist harassment and abuse that is not adequately recorded by police. The Commission also reports that international students do not have ready access to reliable information about the support available to them regarding their rights in Australia. 

To compound the problems that international students face, research suggests that employers are guided by racist stereotypes that perceive international students as having poor cultural skills. In one study, Australian employers report being less happy with their international graduate recruits in comparison to their local graduates. They say that international students lack the right communication and problem-solving skills for the job, even if they are technically knowledgeable.

Intercultural Responsibility

Given that the Australian Government raises a high revenue from international graduates, social policies at the national level should better support international student experiences. Beyond the economic incentive, Australia also has a social imperative to support intentional students’ learning. Students’ lack of knowledge about their rights, their experiences of racism and the restrictions they face at work should be better managed through policy intervention and better regulation of courses. 

Likewise tertiary educations, who raise revenue from up-front paying international students have a responsibility to better prepare students for the workplace. The number of poorly recognised courses that attract desperate international students are not adequately assessed. In the larger universities, stronger social network support, English language training and intercultural learning should be a priority.

Intercultural education is not a one-way process. The research in this area shows that international and local students and teachers stand to gain a great deal from mutual interaction and exchange. Strengthening the social networks between international students, local students, and employers will improve the delivery of education services in a way that would be advantageous to Australia’s higher education system.  

International students contribute more than financial revenue to the Australian economy They also represent an invaluable network of intercultural ambassadors with the potential to strengthen Australia’s multicultural learning and international relations. Education providers would stand to gain a great deal from the overseas links, knowledge and resources that international students bring into Australia.

Learn more

Read an open source version of my study in more detail, with references on my website:

The full research article was first published in April 2012 by Intercultural Education.

Top photo: Australian Intercultural Society.

8 thoughts on “Importance of Intercultural Education for International Students

  1. Very interesting and comprehensive, thanks for sharing.  Do you have information on the percentage of students who eventually return to or intend to return to their home countries?  I was wondering on the flip-side, how suitable knowledge acquired in Australia can be applied in other cultures/countries.  


  2. Bei Bei This is such a great question! The general answer for both is that it depends on their home country, the type of course they came to do and why (TAFE/technical versus higher ed) and their social reasons for going in the first place (lifestyle, family, employment, and learning about “Western” culture). A study by Australian International Education surveyed over 4,000 international students. It finds that 77% of international students who returned home were employed compared to 67% of students who stayed in Australia. 

    A study of international students in Australia by  IDP Education surveyed 2,000 international students. I’ll write another post on this in more detail, but essentially the students who had always intended to return home (36%) came largely from Hong Kong and Thailand. They were more likely to find employment quickly (90% within 6 months). Students who wanted to stay permanently or temporarily in Australia (57%) were less likely to be employed. Overall, employment outcomes are better for people who went back home: 78% found full time work within six months compared to 66% of grads who stayed in Australia.

    In terms of how Australian knowledge is viewed overseas: not very well it seems! A study by the Council of Australian Governments finds that Australia is less favoured by Indonesian and Taiwanese students, who prefer to go to America. Of the Indonesian students who chose to come to Australia, they are generally pursuing technical vocational courses such as Engineering at TAFE. Taiwanese students who come here usually do so because they couldn’t get into a good uni at home or they needed practical training that is not available (such as hospitality management). Two other Government studies find that an Australian education is looked down on by Chinese employers. The term liuxuelajie is used, which apparently means “rubbish from abroad.” Chinese employers value some Australian social skills in entrepreneurship, but they think English language skills are better gained at a Chinese university. Singapore only recognises medicine degrees from two Australian universities.

    The problem is that Australia does not market our education very well. Students who come think they’re going to find full time work and residency. They choose to come because they have some family connection or because Australia seems closer to family. Students who go to America are specifically seeking an American education, usually in a specialised field. 


  3. Thank you for such a comprehensive response Zuleyka Zevallos, and the figures are very interesting. The difference in employment rates between those who returned home and stayed is smaller than I thought. Perhaps the type of work matters too in addition to employment status. From my limited experience, most Chinese students and their parents perceive Australia as a destination for emigration, and education is a means to settle in a new country. Countries like UK, US, and Germany are generally more associated with education. These are stereotypical views that have been around for a while, and often held by those who do not personally have experience with Au education.


  4. Bei Bei This is interesting and it aligns with the literature. Family networks are important in decision-making for international students. From the research, this attitude you’ve encountered amongst Chinese students was true in the 1980s and 1990s. Chinese students did well with their education and jobs and they were amongst the most upwardly mobile migrants (and still are). The students who have come later are not as doing well as earlier cohorts, but Chinese-Australians as a group are outperforming many other migrant groups. So perhaps it’s these mixed success stories that are affecting how overseas Chinese social networks think about Australia as a immigration destination. 


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