International education makes a major contribution to Australia’s economy and society.
Not only is it the nation’s third largest export – generating income of $28 billion a year – but it’s also a powerful contributor to our connections and soft diplomacy across the world.
HIGHER ED.ITION spoke with the current President of the Council of International Students Australia, Bijay Sapkota, about the value of this cultural exchange for both Australian and international students.
Can you please introduce yourself and explain the role of the Council of International Students Australia?
My name is Bijay Sapkota and I’m the president of the Council of International Students Australia.
The Council is the peak national body for all the international students studying in Australia, including those studying in universities, TAFEs and private providers.
So we’re the body that advocates on behalf of all these students.
What are you hoping to achieve during your time as CISA president?
I’ve been in the role now for four months and I’ve come into an organisation that has only been established seven years ago. And in that time, with the growth of international students, we’ve seen the role of CISA get much broader and bigger.
During every president’s tenure we prioritise certain issues. During my current tenure we are prioritising student engagement and the issue of preventing workplace exploitation.
On preventing workplace exploitation, we’ve started work on one of our first policy papers which is based on statistics rather than anecdotes.
Exploitation of international students in the workplace is unacceptable and no-one wants to see students being exploited in this way.
So we’ve thought it was high time that CISA work on this particular issue on behalf of our members and those affected.
In the past few months, we’ve also elected a national women’s officer for the first time, which we think is a big step in terms of women’s empowerment and representation within the organisation.
And we have also started a long-term project around the financial sustainability and improving administration of the organisation which is important as well.
Part of being an international student is the cultural exchange – what kind of benefits do international students bring to the Australian community? And what benefits do international students get in return?
Australia is a multicultural and vibrant community. You get to meet people from all around the world, and this kind of cultural exchange broadens the horizons of one’s thinking.
It’s a two-way exchange. International students not only bring an economic contribution but they bring knowledge – and that’s a great contributor to the Australian community. International students also get a massive learning experience through their social activities in Australia and so do Australian students.
Do you think most international students do stay connected to Australia when they return to their home country?
The international students who have been heavily engaged while they are in Australia – they will certainly stay connected with Australia.
I think Australia as a whole – the Government and the universities – should be thinking about avenues, like alumni programs, to connect with the large community of international students who return home and still have links with Australia.
The information is largely anecdotal because we don’t have enough statistical data about the number of international students who maintain that connection. But my sense is that the majority of the students would stay connected in some way.
Why do you think Australia continues to be the third most popular destination for international students in the world?
I think one of the major reasons is multiculturalism and the community here in Australia.
International students feel safe here. Safety is one of the major reasons students choose Australia, particularly compared to other countries with a similar potential to attract international students.
And students love the culture, they get used to the terms such as “mate” and the Aussie slang, and the BBQ culture. That’s what students get attracted to.
So I think that multiculturalism, safety, the culture – these are the reasons why Australia continues to be such a popular international destination for students.
Why did you personally choose Australia as your study destination? What has your experience been like here?
For me, it was the multiculturalism and also my family was in Australia – my sister and some other relatives.
I love Australia and I think I will always cherish my experiences here. It’s provided me personally with great opportunities, including winning the international student of the year award last year.
And for me, personally, I really like the way of teaching in Australia.
What do you think are the most important things an international student should know before coming to Australia? What are some of the things that might be unexpected?
International students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. But the majority come with the intention of paying their fees on their own, and paying for their own accommodation, so one of my recommendations would be to understand your working rights beforehand.
Before coming to Australia, they should look at websites and see what jobs are available. If they are planning to go to a university, they should look at the time that is required for each subject, the subject outline and the university handbook. The information is often very clearly available on the university website.
So, if you just look for the background information, it will be much easier to settle in when they come to Australia.
They should also look at the social activities and organisations at the university that are available.
The international students who settle in successfully are the ones that socially engage – either through university activities or other social organisations outside the university.
Those social connections are so important when you’re moving to a new country.
There’s also other websites like Study Sydney or Study Melbourne – or the local equivalent where a student is enrolling – which have a lot of useful information.
If they can do that extra research before they come, they won’t have that big culture shock in my opinion.
Recent data shows that US colleges are experiencing a decline in international student applications, what do you think this means for Australian higher education?
International students are, of course, a major contributor to the Australian economy – and not only to universities but also contributions to other businesses like restaurants, transport, and other services.
Brexit in the UK or the recent the election in the United States – these provide a great opportunity for Australia to stand out in the education sector and be the world’s leading education provider.
So the Government, the universities, the peak bodies, what we should be looking at is to maintain and to improve the student experience and the course quality.
If a student has a good experience in Australia, then those success stories become one of the major marketing tools for Australian education.
So we could see more and more students who would be interested in coming to Australia for their education.
The FairWork Ombudsman recently launched a campaign to inform the international student community about their workplace rights – what do you think about this campaign? What’s the best way to keep international students informed in this area?
CISA has appreciated the initiative of the FairWork Ombudsman and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in this area. There was a joint statement telling international students that if they complain about work exploitation, their identity will be kept confidential.
This is a really good step to stop work exploitation happening.
CISA organised a panel discussion on 13 December and the plan is to draft a policy paper with the submissions from different stakeholders by January.