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A study in isolation
June, 02nd 2008

HAVING predicted consistently for four years that David Bartlett would inevitably become Tasmania's Premier, long before others in the media did so, I can safely move onto another topic.

So let's move onto another matter of somewhat graver import: the racially motivated bashing of an Indian student a few days ago and how it is a symptom of the loneliness and dislocation that so many foreign students experience in Australian communities where they live and study.

On May 26, the Mercury reported the assault of Varun Khetarpal, a 20-year-old Indian student who is studying at Hobart TAFE. Khetarpal was allegedly set upon by a group of 15 people outside the Observatory nightclub. Khetarpal says he was racially abused and he also says racism is alive and well in Hobart, citing examples of fellow foreign students who have been the subject of racist taunts.

For 20 years now foreign students have been attractive to cash-strapped Australian universities and other tertiary institutions, because they are full-fee paying students. So universities aggressively market themselves to potential students and their families in places around Asia including Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Beijing, and increasingly now, other major population centres.

There are 450,000 foreign students in Australia, and our nation is a leading OECD country in terms of numbers of foreign students educated.

But in February this year a landmark report published by some of Australia's leading researchers in the field of international education painted a sobering picture of how life really is for students who take up the offer to study in Australia.

The study, conducted by Monash and Melbourne universities, found that of 200 foreign students interviewed, two thirds were experiencing loneliness and isolation and it also found that foreign students in Australia can experience what the study termed cultural loneliness, brought about by religious, language and other cultural differences.

For example, six in 10 Chinese students who participated in the study said they had experienced or continued to experience loneliness in Australia.

The practical reality of life for many foreign students in Australian universities and other educational institutions is one of cultural and personal segregation from their Australian-born counterparts. This is not helped by the fact that so many foreign students are living in purpose-built student apartment blocks near university campuses in Australia's major cities.

In Melbourne alone, where there are two university campuses close to the downtown area, around 10,000 students live in such blocks and, according to recent media reports, more than 90 per cent of them are foreign students. This, according to Kate Shaw, a researcher at Melbourne University, exacerbates the feelings of loneliness and alienation from the community in which they are living and studying that many foreign students complain about.

In Tasmania, it is common to see students from India, China, Malaysia and other Asian countries congregating but it is rare to see Anglo-European students in the same group.

So what can be done to ensure that the sight of Australian-born and foreign students eating, socialising and studying together rather than apart from each other becomes the norm in Australian universities?

The Monash and Melbourne study argues that one strategy might be to get those Australian-born students who are also experiencing loneliness on campus together with foreign students so they can share their experiences and help each other.

Others view the issue in terms of race and culture. There is something inherently unfair about asking students from countries like China and India to study in Australia if the Australian education system is not prepared to embrace multilingualism and mix Chinese and Indian methods of teaching with traditional Western ones, goes this argument.

Perhaps then one solution to the dilemma is for Australian, Chinese and Indian universities to join forces and run campuses in both countries, with students from China, India and Australia studying for their degrees in both. Such a model would give students the advantage of experiencing different but equally valuable educational and cultural experiences.

Australians are prone, on occasion, to nasty fits of racism. Khetarpal's experience and the experiences of other foreign students reported in the recent Melbourne and Monash study are testament to that unfortunate fact.

Australia's future lies in Asia, has since the '70s and will for the foreseeable future. We cannot afford to be viewed as a xenophobic Anglo-European outpost that takes the money from Asian students and their families but is otherwise disinterested in greater integration and communication with them.

In the context of Tasmania, this issue is particularly acute, given our need to encourage much greater participation by our state in the China-India dominated 21st century. A challenge for the new Premier, and for that matter his counterpart in the Opposition, Will Hodgman.

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