Pandemic ‘brought international and local students together’

Research uncovers tipping point in distant relations between overseas and local learners

July 1, 2021
Extended hand with “We help” on the palm, illustrating assistance to international students
Source: iStock

The pandemic has attuned Antipodean students to the tribulations of their overseas peers, with the “vast majority” conscious of international students’ plight during the crisis – and many stepping in to dispense advice or food.

study of thousands of students in Australia and New Zealand has found that most recognised the difficulties confronting foreigners during the pandemic – particularly in Australia, where non-residents were sidelined from the main government support programmes.

Of the one in four respondents who said they had helped other students out, one-third said they had tailored their support to foreigners, while many others were unaware of the recipients’ citizenship.

Most domestic respondents said their attitudes towards international students had changed during the pandemic, particularly around social isolation and the practical difficulties of living away from home.

Researcher Rob Lawrence, who co-authored the report, said the results revealed a “new perspective” on how international students could become “better immersed” in campus communities.

The findings suggest Covid could help overcome the alienation experienced by many international students who struggle to develop relationships with locals. Some spend so much time with their countryfolk that their English language skills deteriorate.

The study highlighted domestic students’ willingness “to meaningfully engage with international students”, the report says. “Institutions should consider more structured approaches to fostering peer-to-peer links to enhance the student experience for both international and domestic students.”

It says that “the enhanced positive sentiments” domestic students now exhibit suggest they could become “active advocates” for international education.

The study involved interviews with 48 “stakeholders” and a survey of 4,330 domestic and international students at 24 institutions, mostly universities, in Australia and New Zealand.

It found that domestic students’ assistance towards their international counterparts fell into three categories: psycho-social support, study support and help accessing material support. While mentoring and tutoring were the most common forms of aid, some students stepped up in more concrete ways.

In Australia, where international students queued hundreds of metres for food handouts, 15 per cent of locals who said they had offered practical support had helped submit financial support applications. Eighteen per cent had helped foreigners find accommodation, and 21 per cent had distributed food.

Students were not alone in offering such support, the report found. Community associations, charities, crisis lines, church groups, accommodation providers, publishers and alumni associations also stepped in.

Universities and colleges, by contrast, contributed relatively little “in raising awareness of student hardship or prompting students to provide peer support” – a “missed opportunity”, the report suggests.

But universities were already busy rolling out their own support programmes and may have been “wary of encouraging face-to-face social contact” during the pandemic, it acknowledges.

The research was commissioned by the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) and Education New Zealand (ENZ). IEAA president Janelle Chapman said she hoped it would “encourage institutions to support and strengthen the ties” between different student cohorts.

ENZ chief executive Grant McPherson said New Zealanders often talked about the Māori value of manaakitanga, or hospitality and generosity towards foreigners. “When times got really tough for international students in New Zealand, domestic students stepped up and demonstrated that manaakitanga,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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