Neglect ‘fuels perceptions of racism’ against students in Australia

‘Top down’ antipathy feeds broader experience of discrimination, student representatives warn

September 23, 2020
Belle Lim Monash CISA president
CISA national president Belle Lim

Canberra’s treatment of international students has reinforced perceptions of Australia as a racist nation, an online forum has heard.

Monash University doctoral candidate Belle Lim said the “discrimination” international students faced from the community “ties back” to the Australian government’s treatment of them during the pandemic.

Ms Lim, who was this month named national president of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), said education specialists were well aware of the value of international education to Australia’s economy. “But this sentiment doesn’t really translate to the general population,” she told a summit hosted by the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN).

“These are the communities that international students live in. If there is a huge us-versus-them sentiment from the top down – from the government – this is what international students are experiencing from day to day.”

China’s education ministry warned in June that people studying in Australia faced safety risks, citing “many discriminatory incidents against Asians”. Canberra brushed off the remarks as part of a war of words between the two countries.

But Ms Lim said Australia was a fair-weather friend to foreign students: “In good times international students are part of the community – when we are spending loads of money and contributing to Australia’s economy – but in bad times, when the pandemic hits, students [who have] lost their income have become a liability for the government.

“The government is focusing on getting students back to Australia, but what about the students that are currently onshore? What is the empathetic response?”

The summit heard that comments made by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, in April, when he urged international students to “return to their home countries” if they were unable to support themselves, had made a lasting impression.  

“Even though it happened months ago it’s still something that comes up,” said CISA’s outgoing national secretary, Varsha Balakrishnan. “State and territory governments have provided welfare support for students [but] the lack of support from the federal government overshadows what the states do.”

She said a family friend considering studying in Australia had recently asked her about conditions there. “This is how students decide on their study destination – they reach out to friends overseas to share their experience. The lack of support from the federal government is always a big question. Do they not value us, even though we are a billion-dollar industry?”

James Martin, managing director of the Insider Guides advisory service for international students, said about 80 per cent of student visa holders were currently in Australia and many were struggling.

“A lot of them have lost their jobs and they’re not entitled to [wage subsidy scheme] JobKeeper or [income support scheme] JobSeeker. They are lining up at charities around Australia looking for food.

“We saw 40,000 international students leave Australia last month, and about 40 arrive. We are in a bit of a crisis, and I feel it does start with the student experience here in Australia.”

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