Australian students must engage international students in the China century
Gabrielle Burgess
30 August, 2019

By Gabrielle Burgess

Australian universities have rapidly transformed into global environments with the boom of international education. Over 360,000 international students are enrolled in Australian higher education institutions in 2019, 38 per cent of whom come from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Despite large international student intakes there is a lack of cross-cultural interaction between international and Australian student groups. Universities have responded with programs to better integrate international students, but more work needs to be done to explain to local students the benefits of engaging with their international peers.

Culture Bridge Institute, a student-run think tank, has conducted research on the barriers to cross-cultural interaction among students at Australian universities. In a survey of students at the University of Melbourne Faculty of Business and Economics, domestic students cited language barriers, cultural differences, lack of opportunity and lack of incentive as the main barriers to cross-cultural interaction. However, no international students cited ‘lack of incentive’ as a barrier to cross-cultural interaction, they selected lack of opportunity and language/cultural differences as the key barriers.

When asked whether their degree would have more value if the university facilitated greater cross-cultural interaction, nearly 90 per cent of international students agreed or strongly agreed that cultural interaction was important. In comparison, only 45 per cent of local students agreed that more cross-cultural interaction would enhance their degree. A surprising 20 per cent of domestic students either disagreed or strongly disagreed that greater interaction would add value to their degree.

 Why should domestic students engage international students?

First, the internationalisation of universities provides Australian students with an opportunity to build strong intercultural competency skills vital for work in diverse and globally connected workplaces.

A recent Australian Senate Committee on the Future of Work and Workers Report found that Australian millennial workers are already ’more diverse than any preceding generation’ with one in five born overseas and one in four with at least one parent born overseas. In diverse labour markets like Australia, the OECD identifies soft skills such as understanding intercultural issues, appreciating different perspectives and effective communication within diverse, as important for workplace outcomes. According to a Deloitte Access Economics Report, workers with cultural awareness are also ‘better placed to reach global markets’.

Universities offer Australian students a practical setting to become more culturally aware and competent through interaction with students from different cultural backgrounds. If done properly, the successful interaction of international cultures will make current university students and our future workforce into engaged global citizens.

Cross-cultural engagement is particularly important when it comes to the thousands of PRC students attending Australian Universities.

Australia’s deep economic and financial relationship with the PRC, as Australia’s largest trade destination and an important partner for local businesses, is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. In fact, as the PRC’s share of global GDP grows and eventually becomes the world’s largest economy, its importance to Australia will likely grow. If Australians developed close, interpersonal relationships with Chinese people and an understanding of China whilst at university, this would greatly aid the complex and varied diplomatic and business relations between Australia and the PRC. Long-term personal relationships would also provide businesses with a competitive advantage and open doors to economic exchange.

Domestic students’ lack of engagement with PRC students is a lost opportunity to strengthen the Australia-PRC diplomatic relationship through people-to-people links. According to the 2019 Lowy Institute Poll of Australians’ views on foreign affairs, only 32 per cent of Australians trust China either ‘a great deal’ or ‘somewhat’ to act responsibly. This marks a 20-point fall from 2018. Whilst many factors influence Australians’ perceptions of the PRC, building deeper cross-cultural relationships between domestic and PRC students is likely to increase students’ understanding of different perspectives and provide more nuance to public debates regarding the PRC. Positive cross-cultural interactions offer opportunities for the constructive exchange of ideas and will be an important asset to smooth over political challenges which test the Australia-PRC relationship.

The recent demonstrations between pro-Hong Kong democracy supporters and counter pro-Beijing demonstrators at Australian universities, highlight the challenges in managing diverse communities. The protests may also challenge domestic students’ perspectives of their international classmates and inflame prejudices if cultural understanding and knowledge is absent, regardless of the issues raised by the demonstrations. As protests may occur in the future, it is necessary to build mutual understanding and avenues for respectful cross-cultural engagement to prevent negative outcomes such as racism, ethnic division and violence. Cultural understanding will be an important requirement for finding solutions and restoring rapport and trust.

Australian students must seek out opportunities to engage international students, both inside and outside of the classroom, or risk losing the opportunity to build long term international business networks, deepen their intercultural competency skills and strengthen Australia’s diplomatic relationship with the PRC.

Gabrielle Burgess is a policy assistant at China Matters and is the co-founder of the Culture Bridge Institute, a think tank examining cross-cultural issues in Australia.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the views of China Matters.