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Beyond Borders: Toward a shared student experience - panel session recap

Professor Judyth Sachs

Professor Judyth Sachs

Jun 23, 2023

In our second symposium for 2023 held on 16 May online, we brought three university leaders together to discuss the transnational student experience. 

Beyond Borders: new thinking for the transnational student experience session

I had the honour of Chairing the session as panelists explored strategies and practices for belonging, integrity and success for a transnational student cohort and how these issues are changing into 2024 and beyond. The panel consisted of Prof Beverley Webster, Vice President (Education), Monash University Malaysia; Prof Linley Lord, Pro Vice chancellor and President, Curtin Singapore; and Prof Alex Frino, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Innovation, Enterprise and External Relations), University of Wollongong. 

>> Watch the recording here.

The session was attended by hundreds of professionals and academics interested in transnational students and transnational campuses, and the panelists generously and thoughtfully shared their expertise. Below I will attempt to summarise they key themes that emerged in the conversation.


We were the first foreign university to open a campus in Dubai 30 years ago and hopefully we will soon be the first foreign university to open a campus branch campus in India. We've just been awarded a license in India to open. I'm so happy to be at this conference and happy to share my experiences over the last seven years in these portfolios with you.

Taking education to where the students are

When asked what the benefits of transnational education are, Prof Linley Lord responded that "it means that we can take education to where the students are. So those campus locations are providing opportunities for students who either choose not to come to study in Australia or can't come to study in Australia. And that can be around some financial constraints. Sometimes it's around where the parents want their kids to be studying closer to home and places that they consider to be culturally safe. So there's a mix of motivations there, but it is around taking education to where students are."

"...it also helps us to build networks with the universities that are in the region, with businesses in the region... So that opens up opportunities for students in terms of their career opportunities for the staff around around research."

Prof Alex Frino said, "So the offshore brand recognition is really given a boost through operating offshore. We've experienced that in Dubai. And if I could just give you a funny anecdote. In Dubai, you can swim at Wollongong Beach. Google it. That's the kind of relationship you can build if you're in a place long enough and people get to know you. The visibility of your institution is raised dramatically. So we travel really, really well in the Middle East. Global student mobility, which I love and I think is important for developing the global mindset of students and future leaders."

UOW DubaiThe University of Wollongong in Dubai. Image source: uowdubai.ac.ae

Risks in transnational settings

I also prompted panelists to unpack some of the risks of transnational education.

Prof Linley Lord said "So in terms of some of the the risks around transnational education, obviously the quality of the learning experience. We're a smaller campus all around. Our global campuses are all smaller than the main campuses in Perth. So we don't have necessarily that breadth and depth of resources available; so how do we ensure the equivalent experience for the students without it becoming "vanilla"? I'm very strong that students need to know that they're in Singapore. They're at an Australian university, they're at Curtin, but they're in Singapore and so we don't want it to be vanilla."

"Just the challenge of accreditation requirements working across different jurisdictions and with accreditation bodies for some of the courses, we don't want to recognise when a course is being offered in a location other than Australia. That's a real challenge. And then those issues around being culturally sensitive around curriculum and what can and can't be taught in certain locations because it's against the law. And what does that mean around issues of academic freedom and really the transformational power of education? But how do you ensure that you keep staff and students safe?"

Prof Alex Frino: "Yeah, perhaps with highlighting that geopolitical risks you know, will are truly present when you operate offshore without going into names if to if the Australian Government and another government doesn't get on that can have repercussions for your ability to grow staff offshore or indeed, you know, we worry about some of our staff operating in offshore locations from time to time as different threats and threats originate. In operating an offshore campus, you really have to have your risk management brain switched on all the time and be tuned in to ever present emanating risks with plans for how you can deal with them as they emerge and create problems."

Screenshot 2023-06-23 at 11.16.12 am

The relationship with branch campuses - moving away from the "mothership"

Next, I posed a question around lessons learned so far, and how transnational education has become part of each panelist's institution DNA.

Prof Alex Frino: "You can develop a mindset that, you know, knowledge and the way of doing things goes from your mothership down to your branch campuses. And one of the really pleasant things that I've seen over time over the last seven years that I've been at University of Wollongong, is creating a more integrated whole and understanding that there's all kinds of interesting ideas that emanate in the way of doing things and research. So and building a research culture at our offshore locations that can benefit Australia."

"So if I was going to highlight an idea at the University of Wollongong, we realised five years ago that, you know, we've got the Australian Research Council in Australia, but we've got similar like bodies in other locations and so teams of academics could get together and apply for research funding in all of those locations, not just in Australia, and you could be quite inclusive and put together really interesting teams.  So there's all kinds of opportunities and possibilities that open themselves up. If you can get over the hurdle that everything doesn't go from the mothership to the branch campus, but there's enormous benefits from bringing everyone in and, and together."

Prof Linley Lord: "I guess the story that we tell is the shift from that focus on teaching - that the campuses were there as teaching machines, in effect - to really a mindset about being a campus. So we now talk about them being comprehensive campuses, not in terms of delivering everything, but we teach, we research, we engage with industry, we engage with the community. And so there's now that expected across all of the campuses, like Alex was saying, that we're contributing to research outcomes, but that's often increasingly we're seeing that our colleagues from Australia are coming to us and saying, Oh, there's really exciting things happening in your part of the world. Can you connect us? Can we work with you to work with those people? And a fantastic example for students was through some work that we're doing in the health area, Data science students coming up, working in one of the hospitals here in the rare diseases area, short term projects, absolutely phenomenal outcomes for the students. Life changing for them, but they would actually make a real difference." Our presence on the ground here really enabled that.

Beyond Borders_ Toward a shared student experience - a Students First Symposium-low

Prof Beverley Webster: "Monash has been in Malaysia 25 years this year, so a long time and 25 years ago it's the mothership, the curriculum coming up from the mothership, and that's exactly what happened. And it did take a while for the campus here to mature. But I think more importantly than the campus here in Malaysia maturing, it took even longer for Monash in Australia to acknowledge that there was expertise and authority in Malaysia. And then being it's we are an Australian university with, you know, Australian licensed degrees, but we also are licensed in Malaysia and it's taken a long time for the curriculum to be nuanced and for the mindset to allow the curriculum to be nuanced, given that we are in another country.

"So in relation to teaching and learning, we are now at a point where, you know, our students know that they're at an Australian university, but they're studying in Malaysia, similar to what Linley said about being in Singapore. And the other part of the story about being in another country is that when we look at research we are wanting our primary objective is to engage in research that's beneficial to the Asian region. So working with industry, working with government, working with local community on helping them identify and solve problems. And that's really important. And it's not it's not good enough for us just to say we are graduating people into your community. We need to do more. And I believe it's taken a significant amount of time to get to that place where we actually are now, where we have been well recognised as a higher education institute. But we are also well recognised as a genuine partner with the Malaysian community in helping them to solve problems."

How do you create a sustainable, beneficial partnership between the 'mothership' and the branch campus?

Prof Beverley Webster: "The key to a successful partnership is acknowledgment of expertise, where there is expertise and acknowledgment that we're in partnership, we need to work, whether it's research or whether it's curriculum, teaching and learning. We need to work collaboratively on this. Governance is always eye opening. But that mutual respect and until you have that mutual respect, that acknowledgment that there is expertise in both locations, not all the expertise is at the home campus, then that's when you will get a successful partnership."

"Of course, you do need systems to facilitate that. You need to have members from different locations on committees, on working groups. I'm sure that in the earlier days, every member of every committee and working group was from the home campus. And so you need to make sure that you have some enabling processes to facilitate that collaboration and that mutual partnership."

Prof Linley Lord: "One of the things is also being prepared. So from if I speak from my role here of continuing to remind the Perth campus about global campuses and so when discussion is happening, which would make perfect sense in the Australian context, that I know is going to be problematic, reminding, reminding them that that won’t work in Singapore or that won't work in one of our other locations. And, and so it is part of that people starting to understand the context. The other thing that's made a real difference is really - put aside the pandemic, but people coming and spending time on the campus. And that's a real game changer because it speaks to what Beverley was talking about. Like, wow, you've got some great systems here. You do that really well. Could you share that with others? I didn't know you were doing that. So telling the story of what's happening on the campus, because it can be a little bit out of sight, out of mind."

Prof Alex Frino: "There is a need to remind colleagues when they drive to work for example, in Wollongong, that there's a lot beyond Wollongong in terms of the University of Wollongong. But I think that's just human nature. But I think the most important bit is if you have an inclusive culture within a university, then that would drive you to include everyone at your offshore campuses. So pleasantly we've - it hasn't been all roses, but we've managed to get offshore staff onto most committees that run in Wollongong so that they get visibility, the offshore campuses get this continual visibility of what's happening at the Australian campus."

"The notion of ownership of degrees here, I mean that, you know, with ownership comes, you know, revenue allocation. The interesting model we have in our Dubai campus is students; the degrees they complete qualify to be recognised both in the UAE and Australia. The student opts for one or the other at the end of their degree. But that's kind of interesting. It just changes the equation a little in terms of how you deal with the offshore campus. But I think I think the key is an inclusive culture. As long as that exists, that drives people to include everyone, no matter where they are in the world."

Culturally sensitive curriculum

Prof Linley Lord: It's about getting involved in curriculum development. So whilst we are required by a regulator to take the curriculum from Perth, we're not allowed to develop it ourselves. But that doesn't mean we can't be involved in the development because one of the risks is we'll add an international case study and stir and say that "we've internationalised the curriculum". And of course that just doesn't do anything. We do get complaints from our students here, if all of the case studies are around organisations in Australia, because they say, 'Yeah, that's fine, but I want to know what's happening in the region'. So there's just the actual material that you're asking them to, to look at I think is really important."

"The other thing is drawing on that expertise of the staff that we've got here who live and work in this area. Most of our people have industry experience. So bringing that into making the theory live in terms of what happens in the region is really important."

"Then there's the more challenging area of - in some of our locations talking for example around LGBTQ issues is actually illegal. And so some of our courses have got that material in them. What do we do in those situations? And of course there's always the two arguments. It's an Australian degree. We should be able to deliver it, but there's a legal framework that we’re operating within that says you can't talk about these things and people are put at risk, a serious risk, if they do. How do you then deliver the learning outcomes that you're trying to deliver through those courses in different ways?"

"What do we do about those really sensitive areas and not just take the easy way out? How do we provide that opportunity for students in those locations in a safe way?"

Prof Beverley Webster: "Everyone will be aware of the laws in Malaysia. But, you know, we’re an Australian university, but we have a social contract to the country that we're in and it is a balancing act in our curriculum. But beyond our curriculum, even the in the experiences that students and staff will have when they're actually on this campus and we have to find a way to make it a very safe space for staff and students. We do, you know, access, equity and diversity is a huge agenda for Monash as a university as it is for most universities. So we are providing our university community with those experiences, but we are confined to where we can hold those types of events."

Screenshot 2023-06-23 at 11.14.08 am

"And when we talk about student mobility, it's not just when our students are here in Malaysia, but obviously we send students out to different locations and it's beholden on us to be cognisant of what is going to keep them safe in those different locations, what they need to do, what they need to be aware of. So there are some limitations depending on the country that you are operating in."

Prof Alex Frino: "In Australia we've got this tradition and mindset that it's okay to criticise the government and make all kinds of comments that are not exactly flattering, but there's jurisdictions in which you can be summarily arrested. So it's something that we're very mindful of. We need to keep our staff safe. And and like Beverley, for example, the global leader students put them through a culturalisation experience before they attend a location just to make sure they don't do things that are, you know, young people - young kids, that's what they are - would do and might get them into trouble. But it's a very significant risk and one that is always at the back of my mind. In the front of my mind, actually."

'Belonging' in a transnational setting

Students are at the heart of what happens in any university on any campus, but I think the idea of inclusive openness, belonging and wellbeing is a challenge to all people in senior positions. So I posed to the panel, how do you create a sense of belonging and wellbeing in a campus like the Singapore campus or the Malaysian campus?

Prof Beverley Webster: "It really has to be part of the fabric of the way that you accept how you are operating and accept how your staff and your students are having the experiences they have with you. It needs to be in your strategy. It needs to be in your plans. It can't be something that you hope will happen by osmosis or by some nice conversations or some posters put around campus. It actually has to be in every part of the experience, it needs to…"

"We believe in inclusiveness. We believe in access. So we are at the front door accepting a whole group of students who come from a whole different range of backgrounds, be it cultural backgrounds, be it, you know, academic backgrounds. And we accept them in, thank goodness, happily gone are the days where it's only the high achievers that go to university. And so it's on us to make sure that once they come through that front door that there are support systems, regardless of their pathway into university. And those support systems need to be around different cultures, need to be around different academic abilities, and need to be around different, I guess, mental states as well."

"we need to ensure that the systems we have, the support is there for all of these different cohorts of students so that they do feel included. I don't think we've got that right. I think there's still a long way to go in relation to that, particularly with I think at the learning and teaching space."

"So we need to ensure that the systems we have, the support that are there for all of these different cohorts of students so that they do feel included. I don't think we've got that right. I think there's still a long way to go in relation to that, particularly with I think at the learning and teaching space. I think we've got a fair way to go to have our workforce really understand what it means to have to be educating a diverse cohort of students. I think we've got a long way to go to get our educators to accept that they are not educating people who will take their jobs, who will replace them. That's the minority. We really need to, I feel, turn the dial on where our focus is on all of our students. But I still feel that in a lot of areas our focus is on our high performing students."

"We need to turn the dial and make sure that our support mechanisms and the way that our students are experiencing their education is inclusive and they don't feel that they're sort of the odd one out, that they're left out, that this is too much for them. I'm still seeing what I would consider disturbing numbers of students in first year failing. I don't think that we should have hardly any students in first year failing. So we've got work to do and around an  inclusive education for a diverse cohort of students."

"We need to have the support for the different cohorts of students in the areas that they need it. And we know what those are. There’s sort of academic support, there’s wellbeing support. There's language support, but we need to have those in place. And we also need students to feel comfortable accessing that support because that's another issue is that often students' help-seeking behaviour is not as proactive as it should be. I think we could probably do better in our messaging and communicate about the support that's available. And that it's not shameful to seek support."

Prof Linley Lord: "Yes, in terms of I think one of the challenges is understanding the cultural differences around how you what you report, how you access services, and that we really do need to understand that the expectations around learning and that's not just from the students. We get complaints from the parents that there are no final exams and why are we just giving their child ‘homework’ to do, which is the continuous assessment, and how can they be learning if there's no final exam? So being clear around what the learning processes now look like both for the students and for their parents, and just recognising that, you know, for many of our students English might be their third language, not their second language, their third language. And we don't privilege that. We are often very critical that their English isn't good enough and they're actually operating and thinking in three languages or more. How do we start to privilege that ability, particularly from an Australian context where, myself included, not a lot of people speak multiple languages and think in multiple languages, which is just an amazing skill."

Screenshot 2023-06-23 at 11.19.35 am

"So I think, you know, those challenges around just understanding that context and privileging it rather than it being a deficit model of “they don't ask for help” or “they don't do this, they don't do that”, what do they do, and what can we do that actually meets students where they are."

Prof Alex Frino: "Yeah, we did an interesting experiment at the University of Wollongong to just kind of broaden the minds of the academic staff that were teaching offshore. So we teach finance one, and accounting one, at every location that we're in, but we brought them together to teach as a unified group across the entire diversity of the crowd. And I think what I saw all kinds of gains from doing that, including in terms of labor and cost savings. But the one benefit that I didn't appreciate was the academics learned to deal with teaching to very, very diverse groups because Australians had very different demands to groups of students in Malaysia or or in Malaysia, for example. So educating your staff and those that are dealing with students on the importance of student wellbeing and belonging and how that can enhance the learning experience is fundamental. And so figuring out ways that you can broaden the minds of your staff teaching wherever they are, I think is really important."

Building 'Brand Australia' and defining success in a transnational operation

There was a question from an audience member around how the Australian transnational sector can compete effectively on a global scale, how to define what success looks like for a transnational project and what can we as a country do to support transnational education. 

Prof Linley Lord: "One of the things in terms of what we do differently or better, in my view, is around 'Brand Australia'. Australian education is well respected and well respected internationally. I'm not sure that we always capitalise on that. I think we're getting better at it. But for me, one of the things that could make a difference in terms of just raising the profile of Australian universities in all of their locations, is that real focus on the quality of Australian education wherever you, you get it."

Prof Beverley Webster: "The Australian brand is very, very strong, Australian education is very strong. And I also think about regulators. It's like we are kind of double-regulated. So you've got double the quality, which is true for any campus that's not in its home location but I think it's a matter of maybe quality, not so much quantity."

Prof Alex Frino: "There's something, there is something a bit peculiar about Australians, Australian universities, Australian culture. And staff that choose to come to us want that. And by the same token so do students because they're selecting to come to a, you know, an Australian university operating offshore rather than going to a domestic. So the self-selection is part of the uniqueness is a result of part of the uniqueness of our offering. So I think we need to bear that in mind. I don't think we're trying to duplicate or repeat what the others do, but we do want to keep the integrity of our culture and the way we do things, whilst respecting the local culture norms, of course, as we operate offshore."

Prof Linley Lord: "We're the same [in terms of staff]. It is around that choice and it is around pride in working for a highly respected university and that would be for all of us. And that is that ‘brand Australia’, you’re working somewhere where quality is assured. And so that gives people great pride in the work they do. The other thing around a sense of belonging is really finding those opportunities to connect staff in, as we've talked earlier, through committees, through working parties, through research projects. So they're part of the larger organisation. And that's not just our Perth campus, but across our global network."


International students as a cultural resource

When I was in senior positions at universities, we recruited lots of international students, but we never used them as a cultural resource. There wasn't that sense of reciprocity. And as a consequence, many of these students were siloed into the groups of their fellow students. Once I heard a student say “I didn't ever have to speak English at Macquarie”, and that to me was really devastating as an educator. How can we use international students as a cultural, social, political resource?

When it's a massified international education project, how can we see these students as a cultural resource for the university, and the broader community? 

Prof Linley Lord: "I agree with you, we don't use them as a cultural resource. I think there's sometimes a deficit model that they student that the international students are not as good as, and that's often around language proficiency in English. Obviously, the proficiency in their own language is exceptional. So we don't privilege that and think that we can learn from that. I think it does go back to what's the activity in the classroom."

"Just as a very small example, when I was teaching on the MBA and we had international students in there, we set up discussions and we’d say, Now you've got a cultural resource in your group. You need to test how this theory would work in this location. And it just changed it. Suddenly, a group of students who hadn't been able to find a way to contribute because others wouldn't let them in were the holders of knowledge that was valuable. And so it's around how do we how do we massify that? How do we spread that? So that is curriculum reform. It is learning activity reform, it is assessment reform.

"Suddenly, a group of students who hadn't been able to find a way to contribute because others wouldn't let them in were the holders of knowledge that was valuable."

Prof Alex Frino: "I agree, and would add that there's an old kind of saying that ‘culture trumps strategy’ and the best reform in the world will fail unless you have people that have the right mindset to deal with it. And I think, Linley In your teaching, you were exactly the type of person that I'd want working at my university. You've got a global mindset and you see the benefit of the student sitting that corner that maybe from China and have all kinds of ideas and experiences that they can bring into the classroom. But you can only activate that if you have the right staff with the right mindset. So I think it begins from the hiring of and the type of staff that you go after."

Students walking

Prof Beverley Webster: "Culture isn't the only point of difference. There are lots of other areas that students are different and can be marginalised other than culture. And so when we're talking about inclusivity, we need to look at all of the different types of ways that students are different and how can we support them to, how can we include them in that so they have a better life while they're at university?"

This insightful panel session provided an overview of the transnational student experience and some of the challenges and opportunities the sector is facing in 2023. We discussed the benefits and risks of transnational education, emphasising the importance of creating sustainable partnerships and acknowledging expertise in both locations. The session underscored the need for universities to adopt a more integrated approach to transnational education and to continue to prioritise the student experience, ensuring that students feel a sense of belonging and uphold the academic integrity standards of their institution, wherever they are in the world.

>> Watch the full recording here.

To see past sessions and register for upcoming sessions, please visit our Symposium series webpage.

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