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The plight of international students, and the need for online support

Evelyn Levisohn

May 7, 2020

In an effort to extract and amplify the expansive wisdom of our Academic Advisory Board, we've been dialling in to their 'isolation stations' and asking these higher education oracles how they see the impact of COVID-19 playing out across the sector, and what advice they have for education leaders at this time.

Professor John Rosenberg is Former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Global Relations) at La Trobe University. Prior to this, he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at Deakin University, and Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University. He is also a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Australian Computer Society.

John 1

Studiosity: Given your depth of experience, how do you see these challenging times impacting the higher education sector?

Prof John Rosenberg: I was in higher education full time for 38 years, still involved heavily, and in all of that time we never experienced anything like this. We had the Indian student crisis, we had the GFC. We had SARS. But they're nothing like this. This impacts every single element of a university from obviously teaching delivery, student services, the campuses, the administration, the ability to undertake research, just the laboratories, everything. Every single element is impacted. And of course, as well, revenue is seriously impacted. So in these difficult times, not only does the university have to find a strategy to survive, but it has to do so with a drastically reduced revenue as well - I can't think of a more difficult environment for universities.

"It is extremely hard to provide the same level of support when you don't have access to your campus."

In fact I've spoken to a number of leaders recently in universities, and they're trying every possible avenue to support the students - that's the number one focus: support the students. But it is extremely hard to provide the same level of support when you don't have access to your campus. For many students, the international ones, they're not even in Australia. It's very, very difficult. And it's going to have a long term impact without doubt. Many universities are rising to the challenge and doing a range of things that, quite honestly, I wouldn't have thought they'd be able to mobilise so quickly, so I'm impressed. 

Studiosity: What will be the impact of this crisis on international students themselves and also the universities, and what you think will happen in the longer term for international education?

John: Most Australian universities are fairly highly-geared in terms of international students; it's a significant part of their revenue. So the revenue side is very, very, very serious. Also the majority of international students that come to Australia, come and need to work. Their parents have enough money perhaps to pay their fees, but not for them to live. So they mostly work up to the allowed 20 hours per week, and that pays for their living costs and their food. They can't work now - there are virtually no jobs. And this is a major issue for the students. They're really struggling. I know a number of universities I'm involved with are now providing support food packages. I heard of one university which is offering students to un-enrol from one or two subjects and get a cash refund for those subjects, so they can pay for food and living costs.

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 12.59.18 pmInternational students discussing study struggles. Watch the full video here.

The international students who are in Australia, came to Australia to be part of a physical university community. They're no longer part of the university community. They're living in their own home. Many of them don't have particularly good Internet access. I also worry about their English language standard because this may sound odd, but they come to Australia having passed an IELTS test, with a certain English language standard. The hope is that improves as they mix with other English-speaking students, attend lectures and classes and tutorials. They're not doing that anymore. They are online, but they're not getting that social interaction in English. This will have a longer-term effect on them.

"[International students] are online, but they're not getting that social interaction in English."

And offshore students who are enrolling online, it's not the same experience for them. One of the reasons many people choose to study internationally is to have an experience, particularly in an English-speaking country for most of them. They're not getting that experience. So I do worry - I expect the failure rates will increase significantly, and many universities are already looking at how they're going to deal with that. It is incumbent upon universities to provide whatever level of support they can for those students, because for many of them, it's the first time they're outside of their home, first time internationally, it's tough. 

Students3Students, both international and domestic, discussing their online experience at a Studiosity student meetup. 

Studiosity: What advice do you have for leaders, and those charged with moving the student experience online at this time?

John: A good number of universities have been online for a long time, and have a good experience and understand that delivering a course online is not just taking the class notes, creating a PDF and putting them online. But there are some where this is a new experience for them. They really haven't done much online, and particularly some of the more prestigious universities have been very much campus-based institutions. Fortunately, they're the institutions that probably have a better financial base on which to develop quickly - but it is hard to develop online courses quickly and well, so I think they're going to struggle. They have to understand that this will be a moving feast. Initially, they may basically put the notes online and make them available, but they will need to provide much more than that.

"...delivering a course online is not just taking the class notes, creating a PDF and putting them online."

In particular, students need support on a one-on-one basis. Having lectures online is one thing, but when they're on campus, they can go and see a staff member. They can go to their tutorial. They can get help through those activities. When you're online, they're not available necessarily. All the universities will have to think about how they're going to support both the academic side, how to ensure students get help when they need it, but also the other side, other support services. "I can't find accommodation. I can't afford food." The universities need to provide, through the online program, that sort of pastoral and services support as well, which has always been campus-based. Students come in, they see a counsellor, they go to the accommodation service, they go to the employment service. This is really a major change.

"Students need support on a one-on-one basis."

I fear I haven't heard much about that. I've heard a lot about putting courses online, but not as much about the services and the ongoing support. That's a challenge for universities, again, at a time when they have no revenue, or very limited revenue. 

Studiosity: What do you see ahead then for universities beyond 2020? Do you think that this current situation will impact the sector going into 2021 and following years?

JohnI think it will. Domestically, assuming things go back to 'normal' in some sense, by the beginning of next year, so students can go on campus, domestically they'll recover. The students will come back and that will be OK. Internationally, it'll take some time, I believe. But I'm reasonably optimistic. I know some people are saying international education is dead for five years. I don't believe that. I believe there are many people around this world who greatly value an international experience, which they can't do at the moment. And I believe many of those, once it's demonstrably safe to do so, will come back.

Whether they can afford the education will be an interesting issue. But I think that many will find a way, because they see this as a really valuable thing for their future life. And it is I think, international education is an amazing opportunity for many people to broaden their horizons, gain an incredible experience, and go back to their own country and help to develop their country. So I'm optimistic. I don't think we're going to see at the beginning of 2021 a return to the levels we had, say, last year. But by 2022, I think we'll be very strong again in international education.

Ev & john

Thank you so much again John, for your time and insight. You can read more about John and the rest of our Academic Advisory Board here.  

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