Context and Outcomes of Intercultural Education Amongst International Students in Australia

Context and Outcomes of Intercultural Education Amongst International Students in Australia

By Zuleyka Zevallos

This article was first published in April 2012 by the Taylor & Francis journal, Intercultural Education.


International students represent a large economic and international relations investment for Australia. Australian universities are increasingly relying upon overseas students for their revenue, but these institutions are not adequately addressing the special learning, linguistic, cultural and religious needs of these students. Despite their Australian education, international students experience various difficulties in finding work in their field of study after they graduate. Poor English-language, communication and problem-solving skills are the biggest obstacles to securing ongoing and satisfying jobs. Employer biases regarding international students are equally a problem. This paper provides a demographic context of the international student population in Australia and it also addresses the gaps impeding their full social participation in Australian educational institutions. This paper argues that a stronger focus on the socialisation of international students is likely to increase their educational and career satisfaction. Educational providers would better serve international students by focusing on practical learning, career-planning and reinforcing the social and cultural skills valued by Australian employers.

Spanish Abstract:
Los estudiantes internacionales representan una gran inversión económica así como de relaciones internacionales para Australia. Las universidades Australianas dependen financieramente cada vez mas del ingreso de estudiantes de ultramar, sin embargo no responden adecuadamente a las necesidades culturales, lingüísticas y religiosas de estos estudiantes. No obstante su formación universitaria, los estudiantes internacionales encuentran barreras para la obtención de empleo en su campo profesional luego de su graduación en universidades australianas. Este artículo presenta el contexto demográfico general de la población estudiantil internacional en Australia e identifica las barreras para su integración social. El argumento central en el presente artículo es que una mayor atención a la organización social de estos estudiantes puede no solamente mejorar su satisfacción educacional sino también profesional. Las instituciones educativas Australianas podrían ofrecer mejores servicios a los estudiantes internacionales si avocaran recursos para el entrenamiento de habilidades prácticas que ayudaran a estos estudiantes a planear su carrera y mejorar sus capacidades sociales y culturales.

Benefits of intercultural education in Australia
Benefits of intercultural education in Australia

Keywords: international students; intercultural learning; employment; Australian labour market; graduate career planning.


International students contribute $15.9 billion to Australia’s economy through tuition fees and living expenses. This revenue from students is twice as high as their economic contribution seven years ago (ABS 2011, 55). International education has increased by 94 percent since 2004. This now represents the third-largest export industry for Australia, generating profits that are 50 percent larger than tourism-related travel (Phillimore and Kosh 2010, 1). Given that international students comprise a major migrant group in Australia, their contribution to Australia’s economic, cultural and internal relations are potentially significant. This paper provides a review of the empirical literature on the intercultural education outcomes of Australia’s international student population. The paper begins by outlining the socio-demographics of international students, followed by an analysis of their employment experiences after graduation. The paper also discusses issues of educational training, career planning, and employer expectations and biases. Educational institutions tend to concentrate on delivering syllabus material in a uniform manner to all their students. Universities and vocational schools would better assist the social integration and success of international students by preparing them for the Australian labour market throughout their studies. This includes providing them with practical work training and regular opportunities to exercise the communication skills expected of them by prospective employers.

Demographic context of international student migration to Australia

This section provides some information about the size and background of the international student population in Australia, including their national origins, their age and gender structure, visa status and the types of courses they pursue. The most recently available and nationally-representative data on international students is from 2008-2009. These data are collated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 2011), which draws on from the latest Australian Census and data from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. These data show that temporary migration has been growing in Australia, with international students and business entrants making up the biggest proportion of this growth (ABS 2011, 19). From 2002 to 2009, the number of people entering Australia on student visas increased by 108 percent (ABS 2011, 28-29). Around 153,600 international students arrived in Australia during 2008-2009, representing 30 percent of all migrant arrivals (ABS 2011, 33). Around 72,100 of these students were studying at university (14% of all net arrivals or 47% of all student arrivals); 53,600 were in vocational training and education (10% of all arrivals or 35% of all student arrivals); and 28,000 went into other educational institutions (5% of arrivals or 18% of student arrivals) (ABS 2011, 32). Around 56 percent of all international higher education students were studying at the undergraduate level and 44 percent were postgraduates (Phillimore and Kosh 2010, 3).

Adjusting for student departures, Australia’s net student population is at an ‘all time high’ of 122,400 people (ABS 2011, 55). Ninety-three percent of the net international student population is aged 15 to 34 years (113,600 people) (ABS 2011, 61). The largest proportion of these international students is actually aged in their 20s, with a median age of 24 years (ABS 2011, 22, 68). International students are disproportionately male (58%), and they live mostly in the state of Victoria (28%) (ABS 2011, 61). The top four countries for student net migration include India (43,000 people or 35% of all student arrivals and departures), China (24,700 or 20%), Nepal (10,500 people or 9%), and Vietnam (6,000 or 5%) (ABS 2011, 65). In addition, Malaysia, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia each comprise around 3 percent of international students (around 3,000 people each). Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Mauritius each make up around two percent (from 3,500 to 2,200 people) (ABS 2011, 65). These smaller groups did not feature in the top ten biggest countries for international students in 2004-2005, but they have now overtaken other groups such as South Korea, Bangladesh and Hong Kong, which have previously dominated student arrivals (ABS 2011, 65-66). India and China, however, have collectively made up at least 50 percent of Australia’s international student population for the past decade (ABS 2011, 66). The youngest of these international groups are Malaysian (median age of 21.5 years) and the oldest are Thai (median age of 26 years) (ABS 2011, 68). There are twice as many Indian and Saudi Arabian male international students as there are women, while Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese students are more likely to be women (ABS 2011, 69).

While the overall net international student population is at an all-time high, the proportion of international students in universities has dropped by 10 percent since 2005-2006 (ABS 2011, 63). This downward trend generated a crisis in the Australian tertiary system. John Phillimore and Paul Koshy (2010) conducted a predictive study on behalf of The Australian Technology Network, which is an alliance of five prominent Australian universities. Phillimore and Koshy’s study showed that the 10 percent decline in international student enrolments would equate to a loss of 100,000 students by 2015, representing a loss of $5.88 billion expenditure (2010, 2). In January 2011, the Chief Executive of Universities Australia, Glenn Withers, confirmed to the media that up to 7,500 education jobs around Australia would be cut as a result this 10 percent drop in international student numbers (Whyte 2011). The enrolment plunge was linked to rigid changes to visa regulations, the increased value of the Australian dollar, the collapse of private colleges, and highly publicised racist attacks against international students which had proliferated to the international media (Whyte 2011). In response to the decreased international student intake, at least one of Australia’s top universities, Monash University, engaged in a swift large-scale restructure, offering redundancy packages to 400 staff members, which effectively doubled class sizes due to the fact that there were fewer lecturers (Menzies-Pike 2011). The university also significantly scaled back their Arts and Humanities courses, which have lower rates of international students (Menzies-Pike 2011). In a leaked email from October 2010, Vice Chancellor Ed Byrne tells his staff that a university restructure was necessary specifically due to the decreased international student intake. Byrne writes:

As many staff are aware, at Monash University international student fees account for more than 20 per cent of our annual income, so the [10%] drop will have a significant adverse impact upon the University’s budget. We need to reduce our planned expenditure for 2011 by around $45 million (cited in Menzies-Pike 2011).

Australia’s most prestigious universities are clearly under intense financial pressure and international students are looked upon as an important funding source. Despite the 10 percent drop in international enrolments at the national level, the reason why the net population of international students remains high is because there are more international students entering vocational training courses. This rate has more than doubled since 2005 (ABS 2011, 63). The type of education that international students pursue partly depends upon Australia’s immigration program, which is currently granting twice as many vocational training visas and a slightly smaller proportion of tertiary student visas than five years ago (ABS 2011, 76-77). While most international students go into the tertiary sector, the Chinese do so in larger proportions (64%), while Indian students are nowadays more likely to go into vocational training (55%). Thai international students tend to undertake English-language courses (77%), while a significant minority of Malaysian students (14%) and Indonesians (12.5%) come to Australia to do postgraduate research (ABS 2011, 72). Historically, migrants with university qualifications are more likely to qualify for permanent residency under the skilled migration program (Ho and Alcorso 2004). While there is now a renewed focus on Vocational and Educational Training (VET) student visas, international students in vocational courses are not necessarily gaining permanent residency (Birrell and Healey 2008a, 2008b; Birrell and Perry 2009). The next section explores why international VET students are especially disadvantaged in securing professional work and permanent residency after they graduate from Australian institutions.

Employment outcomes

Photo by CTBTO via Flickr, CC 2.0
Photo by CTBTO via Flickr, CC 2.0

Various studies have consistently shown that American, Chinese and Thai employers running multinational overseas companies highly value graduate employees who have been educated in English-speaking countries. This is especially the case in the business and management sectors (AEI 2010, 1). Nevertheless, studies also show that international students who have been educated in Australia have a difficult time securing full-time employment relative to their local Australian student counterparts (AEI 2010; Arkoudis, et al. 2009; Birrell and Healey 2008a, 2008b). This section will discuss the issues which contribute to the negligible employment outcomes of certain groups of international students in Australia.

Since the 1990s, migrants from the Indian sub-continent have overwhelmingly qualified for entry to Australia under the skilled and student migration programs and they have achieved relatively high socio-economic outcomes (ABS 2009; Bilimoria and Voigt-Graf 2001). Similarly, Chinese migrants have disproportionately arrived under the student and business categories since the 1990s and also achieved great success (ABS 2009; Lalich 2006). Not all sub-sections of Indian and Chinese communities in Australia are as upwardly mobile. Young migrants aged 20 to 29 years from China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka cannot find work in their chosen fields even though the majority of them undertook their degrees in Australia (Birrell and Healey 2008a, 8). Engineering students, IT specialists, accountants, business majors, technicians and trades people (particularly cooks) who come from these countries are especially likely to have trouble finding work in their profession (Birrell and Healey 2008a). This is a troubling trend given that five major Australian universities have a high proportion of international students in their accounting and IT courses (Birrell and Healy 2008b, 17-18). Medical professionals aged in their 20s are faring slightly better, but they are still less likely to be working in their field in comparison to international students from English-majority countries such as the UK, USA, Canada and South Africa. This trend is stark amongst international students with a degree in accounting (Birrell and Healey 2008b). By 2008, only around 20 percent of Indian and Chinese accounting graduates were employed in professional occupations, in comparison to 80 percent of their counterparts from English-majority countries and almost 70 percent of their Australia-born counterparts (Birrell and Healey 2008a, 11).

The same poor employment outcomes are found amongst international students who are studying under the new VET program introduced in the past couple of years, particularly as cooks, hairdressers and accountants (Birrell and Perry 2009, 77-78). In one large survey of international university graduates, 81 percent of international students who had returned to their country of origin were employed, in comparison to 70 percent of university and VET graduates who stayed in Australia (AEI 2010, 6). Graduates who had relocated overseas also reported higher levels of job satisfaction. Sixty percent of domestic Australian university students were working in the same field as they studied, in comparison to only 47 percent of international university graduates and 44 percent of international VET graduates (2010, 6). International VET students are increasingly sponsored by an employer and they must accumulate two years of work experience on top of their study, usually in the hospitality industry (Birrell and Perry 2009, 75). There is a danger that VET students are working for low pay with the expectation that upon completion of their course, they will gain permanent residency (Birrell and Perry 2009, 71). International VET students are less likely to gain Australian residency as international students who attended university, or perhaps it takes them longer to gain a permanent visa (cf. AEI 2010, 11).

While business and commerce companies are receive high number of applications from international students, they only take on a small minority of these applicants (see Birrell and Healey 2008b, 12-13). Instead, Australia-born graduates are preferred candidates amongst employers, even though Australian-educated international students have the same qualifications (Birrell and Healey 2008b). Surveys and interviews with employers suggest that sophisticated communication skills are more highly valued than other specialist skills, particularly in business and commerce industries that place a premium on the effective management of client relationships (AEI 2010; Birrell and Healey 2008b, 13). Although international students are educated in Australia and they have acquired the technical skills required in their fields, their social, cultural and communication skills tend not to respond to those sought after by Australian employers.

Government funding has been significantly decreased in recent years and international students are seen as a primary way to off-set such funding cuts (Menzies-Pike 2011). Due to the over-dependence on the revenue that international students provide, it seems that some of Australia’s top universities are admitting student applicants who may not be fully prepared to tackle the communication challenges demanded by a tertiary course. The next section takes up these intercultural education issues.

Addressing issues of intercultural education

Photo: Kaplan International English via Flickr, CC 2.0
Photo: Kaplan International English via Flickr, CC 2.0

The following is an analysis of the educational resources and funding available to international students. Also discussed is the disjuncture between the learning styles that international students use throughout their degrees and the behaviour expected of them by the higher education system in Australia. The knowledge that international students have about the job marketplace will also be explored as well as the expectations that employers seek from graduates.

In some respects, international students report similar levels of satisfaction with the educational support they receive from their institutions in comparison to Australian students, but in other cases there is a wide discrepancy. G. Harman (2003) surveyed 168 international students and around 900 domestic students who were attending two of Australia’s most prestigious universities. Harman finds that international PhD students are similarly happy with the specialised equipment and computers provided for them as are domestic PhD students (60%), but international students are slightly less happy with the financial support they receive (46%) in comparison to domestic students (60%) (2003, 344).  Two-thirds of the Australian students had financial support for their education through government and industry funds (65%), in comparison to only half of the international students surveyed (53%) (2003, 345). The difference was more evident for international engineering and science students (62%) in comparison to 100 percent of their Australian counterparts who had some access to external research support (2003, 345).

Harman notes that there has been a significant drop in international student satisfaction in the research support they receive from their institutions (27%) in comparison to Australian students (23%) (2003, 44). Harman sees this as an important finding because in previous studies from the 1990s international students had consistently reported higher educational satisfaction in comparison to domestic students. Nevertheless, Harman’s survey finds that there are some differences in the educational experiences by international students. Science and technology university students who have stronger English-language skills reported higher levels of educational satisfaction, while science students undertaking industry placements in co-operative research centres are less happy. The latter group reports having adequate access to resources that might improve their research and English skills, but they were reticent to seek out assistance (2003, 344-345). Harman does not explain why this is the case, but it may be due to the highly competitive nature of industry research posts. Perhaps these science and technology students perceive that seeking out resources might appear as a personal deficiency to the potential employers with whom they are embedded, and thus disadvantage them.

In a later study, Harman notes that the empirical literature has consistently shown that international students adopt learning approaches that often differ considerably from Australian students (2005, 128-129). This is unsurprising, given that these students come from a different culture. The problem lies in how these study styles impact on the quality of learning and the satisfaction of international students. Overseas students ‘mix relatively uneasily and infrequently’ with Australian students (Harman 2005, 129). Such limited and superficial contact with local students often disappoints international students and inhibits their understanding of Australian culture. Teaching styles in Australian tertiary institutions do little to strengthen the English language competence of students (Harman 2005, 129-130). Cultural norms familiar to overseas students, such as notions of politeness, can impede their learning and writing skills in the Australian context. Cultural differences also make it more difficult for teachers to adequately evaluate the English and comprehension of overseas students (Harman 2005, 130).

International students often have a poor understanding of the cultural knowledge required in the Australian job marketplace. Unemployed international graduates in Australia largely believe that they cannot find work because they lack adequate job experience, permanent residency or because there were not enough jobs in their field of study (AEI 2010, 9). Overseas and Australian employers report that they are either experiencing a skills shortage or they believe that such a shortage is imminent (AEI 2010, 13). Nevertheless, employers have several reservations about hiring international graduates. In one study, 91 percent of Australian employers report being satisfied with the local Australian graduates working for them. In comparison, 83 percent of Australian employers were satisfied with the Australian-educated international graduates working for them (AEI 2010, 15). Amongst the Australian employers who were dissatisfied, communication skills, including written and spoken English, were reported as the major problems (AEI 2010, 16). Additionally, more than half of all employers were reluctant to hire international students due to the prospect that they might be investing in someone who would be unlikely to stay in the job for long (AEI 2010, 16). International student graduates were most likely to stay in a job if they were working in their chosen field. International graduates who had returned overseas and local Australian graduates were more likely to be working in a field related to their study. International students who stayed in Australia are less likely to be working in a field related to the degree and they are therefore less likely to stay in their jobs longer than two years (AEI 2010).

International students report not receiving adequate career guidance and they also have unrealistic expectations of the job market such as the starting salaries for new graduates (AEI 2010; Arkoudis, et. al. 2009). Students would benefit from finding casual or part time work in their chosen field in order to increase their practical work experience whilst they are still studying (AEI 2010, 19; Arkoudis, et. al. 2009, 91). In close partnership with employers, educational institutions could offer students internships or hands-on work placements to help them understand the requirements of the Australian job market place in a more concrete way (AEI 2010). This exercise would also benefit Australian employers who hold negative stereotypes of international students. Other than the communication skills that employers are seeking from international students, empirical tests have shown that employers are unwilling to grant interviews to job seekers with Middle Eastern and Chinese-sounding names, even when they hold the same qualifications as people with Anglo-Celtic names (Booth, Leigh and Varganova 2009). The poor employment outcomes of Middle Eastern and Chinese international students might therefore be understood to be an outcome of institutional racism.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (2009) has identified that international students face racist harassment and abuse that is not adequately recorded by police. The Commission also reports that international students do not have ready access to reliable information about the support available to them regarding their rights in Australia. Educational institutions could assist this process by providing such information online and also by closely working with employers to break down the negative stereotypes that employers hold of international students.

While some studies emphasise the cultural norms of communication that may inhibit the learning of international students, other studies show that international students are especially active in shaping the activities, vision and future direction of university groups and social clubs. For example Muslim tertiary students have special religious needs that are not always met adequately by their existing facilities. A large study of university groups in Australia finds that international Muslim students work closely with local Muslim students in order to address these institutional gaps (Asmar 2001). International Muslim students have played a pivotal role in achieving observable changes in their universities, such as by lobbying to get halal food on campus, as well as organising ablution facilities, prayer rooms, and Muslim ‘chaplains’. They have also coordinated ‘discrimination-free’ social events, such as activities that do not revolve around alcohol (Asmar 2001, 152-154). The activism of overseas students arises from a need to create a ‘community’ on campus that answers their cultural and religious requirements. The grassroots advocacy and achievements of international students sometimes go unacknowledged. Education institutions would do well to be cognisant of the learning, linguistic, cultural and religious needs of their students, but to also to recognise the benefits of having international students on campus, beyond simply their financial contribution.


There are multiple intercultural learning issues that impact on the social skills and integration of international students. A significant but growing minority of international graduates aged in their 20s from India and China show signs of economic disadvantage despite their Australian qualifications (Birrell and Healey 2008a, 2008b). While a sub-group of these students have gained their degrees in Australia, they are less successful in finding work in their chosen profession relative to students from English-speaking countries and Australia-born graduates. Employers understand this prejudice in terms of the set of social and communication skills that they require. In this sense, the English proficiency and cultural knowledge being passed onto international students by their education providers is sometimes inadequate. Nevertheless, some employers are unwilling to hire certain ethnic minorities, particularly Middle Eastern and Chinese people, irrespective of their tertiary qualifications from Australian institutions (Booth, Leigh and Varganova 2009). This is probably due to racist stereotypes as well as the perception that international students do not have the adequate communication skills to fulfil the social aspects of their jobs.

Tertiary educators have a responsibility to incorporate English language and communication training to better equip international students whilst they are studying in Australia. Education providers would also benefit from partnering with workplaces in order to offer students work placements and internship opportunities. Such work experiences would serve multiple intercultural educational purposes. First, students can practice the cultural and social skills required of them by employers in a real-life work setting. Second, this exchange would provide employers an opportunity to better understand and socialise with international students, and break down stereotypes that are adversely affecting the outcomes of international students in Australia.

Due to linguistic, cultural or religious differences, the social activism of international students may sometimes go unnoticed. International students have galvanised to create communities on campus that meet their social needs. The special cultural and religious requirements of international students no doubt require the establishment of close-knit groups with like-minded members. At the same time, the empirical data reviewed in this paper also show that international students have limited social contact with local Australian students. Strengthening the social networks between international students, local students, and employers will improve the delivery of education services in a way that would be advantageous to Australia’s higher education system. Education providers would stand to profit deeply from the overseas links, knowledge and resources that international students bring into Australia. International students contribute more than financial revenue to the Australian economy. They also represent an invaluable network of intercultural ambassadors with the potential to strengthen Australia’s multicultural learning and international relations. The other papers in this special edition of the Intercultural Education Journal will present strategies to support the intercultural contribution of international students.


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Access the published article as a PDF (pay to access) via the link below.

Citation for original article:

Zevallos, Z. (2012) ‘Context and Outcomes of Intercultural Education Amongst International Students in Australia’, Intercultural Education, Vol. 23(1): 41-49.

9 thoughts on “Context and Outcomes of Intercultural Education Amongst International Students in Australia

    1. Hi,
      I’m glad the post was of some interest! International student experiences are shaped by the sending and receiving countries, that’s for sure. What sorts of patterns do you see in your job?


      1. Generally, I believe the United States is involved very similar situations.

        Sometimes I wonder if it’s not satisfaction with education in the US or Australia that’s the problem, but that, because of immigration regulations and economic issues, the best instructors are returning to their home countries at a higher rate than ever before.

        Also, so many International Students are referred to universities by family members who had been in the United States prior to 9/11 that their overall expectations don’t live up to what they were told to expect. I think that creates a confusing atmosphere.


      2. Hi again. Interesting to read about your perspective from America. I definitely agree that immigration, economic changes and family recommendations are contributing to the unfulfilled expectations of international students. Research supports this idea on how family recommendations affect the decision of where international students study. I’ll write more on this another time.

        I still believe that policy makers and universities need to take responsibility here. Students may have unrealistic expectations, but this is well-documented. This means that universities should clearly communicate what students’ job prospects may be (for example, often though not always, better in their home country after graduation). Students still expect to get a visa after study. This expectation should also be addressed. Finally, given the contributions of international students, the least the university system can do is provide them with additional support whilst they’re here, and also providing better training to staff. I was always uncomfortable with seeing international students struggle in my classes due to cultural differences. For example in sociology, making a strong contribution to class discussion is 10% of the mark. This is hard for students from cultures where students aren’t expected to talk as much in class. I generally think we can be doing a lot better by international students.

        Thanks for your comments!


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