Covid reaps empathy dividend Down Under

Pandemic hardship has helped make domestic students aware of their overseas peers, study finds

November 23, 2020
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The Antipodean coronavirus crisis has thrust international students into their domestic counterparts’ consciousness, as locals step up for their overseas peers.

Research into the attitudes of students in Australia and New Zealand is exposing an upside to the pandemic’s wrecking ball impacts on international students. Most domestic students say they are concerned about the plight of foreigners, with many taking active steps to help, particularly through tutoring and mentoring.

Their empathy has helped fortify the views of international students, who still rate their host countries as friendly and beautiful places to live and study.

Preliminary results from the ongoing study of around 4,000 students, unveiled at an International Education Association of Australia webinar, suggest that predictions of a decline of Australian and New Zealand education exports may be off the mark. “The mindset which drives people [and] influences their perceptions remains strong,” said researcher Rob Lawrence.

He said the findings contradicted warnings that would-be students would abscond for other educational destinations, such as Canada, because Australia and New Zealand had closed their borders to international arrivals. Students’ reasons for choosing to study Down Under had not “gone out the window”, Mr Lawrence insisted. “We’ve got a really positive story to tell. I don’t believe people will suddenly switch.”

The research has found that about one in six domestic students in New Zealand and one in four in Australia directly supported international students this year. Many learnt about their overseas counterparts’ plight through the media and were encouraged to help by friends.

That support was particularly warranted in Australia, where 36 per cent of international student respondents were rendered jobless this year, with 28 per cent forced to move house.

While visa issues were the top worry of foreign students in New Zealand, financial problems dominated their concerns in Australia – potentially reflecting Canberra’s decision to rule overseas students ineligible for the country’s wage subsidy scheme.

Over 60 per cent of international students in Australia said that they had benefited from direct grants, payments or other forms of support – typically financial aid, food parcels or rental assistance from their institutions, community organisations or state governments.

Ironically, only 20 per cent of overseas students in New Zealand said that they had attracted financial support. Sahinde Pala, student experience director with Education New Zealand, said that the country’s wage support payments had gone to employers so “students potentially wouldn’t have known that they were receiving any financial support from the government”.

She told the forum that a NZ$1 million (£520,000) government hardship fund for international students had not been fully subscribed. “We didn’t manage to get all the funds out the door. Hopefully that indicated that there wasn’t as much of a need as we thought there might have been.”

Mr Lawrence said that the most “extreme” difficulties had been experienced by international students from more “price-sensitive markets” – such as India, Nepal and the Philippines – and by those who did not have family or friends living nearby.

He said that about 80 per cent of foreign students typically had “existing networks” in the cities where they studied. “It mitigates some of the challenges,” he said.

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