Ly Tran

Stereotyping international students is unjust

This article was first published on University World News 

Around the world, over 4.5 million students are undertaking overseas tertiary education. There were approximately 590,000 international student enrolments in Australia by December 2014.

A recent ABC Four Corners episode and associated comments over social media thrust international students into the spotlight. It identified real problems of collusion, plagiarism and fraudulent overseas agents, however it also depicted international students as vulnerable and desperate individuals who were unprepared to cope with tertiary education in the English language.

Moreover, it presented overused stereotypes of international students only interested in gaining permanent residence rather than pursuing an education in a country they highly respect. Our research, however, contradicts these conventional notions of international students as simply victims, cheaters and mere permanent residence hunters.

Instead, our separate studies show that, despite the challenges they face, many international students are dynamic individuals who are highly skilled at adapting to living and studying in Australia while at the same time having cosmopolitan aspirations of living and working overseas.

Desire to learn

Ly Tran’s work on international students in Australia shows that many have a genuine desire to learn. This research shows that international students have divergent, shifting and, in some cases, multiple purposes for undertaking their studies in Australia.

The research found four variants of the migration-learning relationship:

  • they came for dual objectives of securing migration rights and knowledge acquisitions;
  • migration was their sole motivator;
  • migration was seen as a ‘second chance opportunity’; and
  • they had no interest in gaining permanent residency or had lost any interest they may once have had.

These four variations challenge the ‘international students simply want to migrate’ perspective that is widespread in the media and community.

Importantly, the desire for migration does not necessarily contradict the aspiration for learning and professional development but these objectives can complement each other.

While we acknowledge that permanent residence might be a consideration for those seeking to study in Australia, it is not always the primary motivation nor the sole desire for international students .

Instead we have been finding that international students have aspirations for global mobility with a strong desire to live and work in the big cities of America, Europe and Asia. The international students who we spoke to, in other words, are open to where their future lies.

Living in Australia

Our separate studies have shown that international students adopt various strategies in Australia. They are not ‘lost’ and-or passive subjects, as implied by the Four Corners programme. Our work suggests that international students form parrallel societies of need and that they exercise various forms of agency.

This does not mean that all international students actively and effectively exercise agency in mediating the challenges of overseas study, protecting themselves against injustices and transforming their lives. But their potential for agency is real and should be acknowledged and strategically built on.

Why stereotypes hurt

Stereotyping international students as no more than victims, cheaters and permanent residence hunters hurts both the students themselves and educational practice.

As one international student in our research revealed: “I feel that my contribution is not valued. That is because I am seen as someone who comes here to take something from the system, like permanent residence. But I feel that they don’t recognise that I want to be part of it and contribute something.”

Stereotyping international students widens the segregation between international and domestic students. Our research shows that the ways international students are generalised makes them feel disconnected and places them in a position of vulnerability and marginalisation within the classroom and campus.

This is part of the social and structural framework that precludes the creation of a meaningful and inclusive intellectual and intercultural environment for all students.

Stereotyping international students has a destructive impact on international students’ access to work placements and employability.

If these stereotypes underpin pedagogic work, educators might easily see international students as simply not interested in learning or as ‘problems’ to be remedied and ignore the benefits of positioning them as potential useful constructors of knowledge.

As a result, less emphasis will be placed on finding effective ways to draw on the different cultural and professional knowledge, experiences, backgrounds and interests that international students bring into the classroom which could enhance learning for all.

Australia is sending domestic students to Asia to learn about Asian languages, Asian literacy and Asian professional practices through the New Colombo Plan and various other study-abroad programmes.

Have educators thought seriously about capitalising on the language, cultural and intellectual resources Asian international students bring which could help domestic students to engage with Asian literacy in the classroom?

Stereotypes, however, do not seem to apply when Australians themselves become international students, particularly in Asia, despite their limited local language and local knowledge. This raises the question of who is more privileged in international education and/or if inclusive international education practices vary among countries.

To conclude, let’s reflect more deeply on the stereotype of international students and its effects through the words of one of the international students we interviewed: “On my very first day the programme manager asked me, are you doing this [course] for residency?… It’s like putting a label on me already. You want to see me as someone who is after permanent residency.

“I feel that there is a stigma attached to it as if we students come here and do the course just for migration… If you treat us with suspicion all the time and say ‘well, you’re not really interested in learning, you’re just here for the visa [residency]’, then there’s no help offered to us to find placements.”

The fundamental question is therefore what institutions and the international education sector should do to disrupt those stereotypes and move towards a more supportive and inclusive environment that recognises international students’ challenges, potential contributions and, importantly, their agency.

TRANfinalLy Tran is a senior lecturer at the school of education, Deakin University, Australia, and an Australian Research Council DECRA – Discovery Early Career Researcher Award – fellow. She has been a chief investigator, or CI, on two research projects on the teaching and learning of international students funded by the Australian Research Council. She is a lead CI on a new project entitled ‘New Colombo Plan: Australians as international students in Asia’ with colleagues from Deakin University and the University of Adelaide. Tran’s research and publications can be found here.


CatherineGomesCatherine Gomes is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University in Australia and an Australian Council Research DECRA felllow.  Her current work examines the social and cultural conditions of international students in Australia and Singapore.  Catherine has published extensively on the themes of identity, ethnicity, migration, gender and social media.  Catherine’s research and publications can be found here.