murdoch university
research expertees
doctoral supervision

Keynote Address

International education: Reciprocity, responsibility and opportunities

Simone E. Volet
Murdoch University
Western Australia

Keynote Address
8th International Student Advisers Network of Australia (ISANA):
International Education: In it together'

Melbourne, December 1997.

First, I would like to congratulate the Conference organisers on their choice of theme for the 8th ISANA Conference 'International education: In it together'. Reflecting on how we are 'in it together' is indeed critical for the future of international education in Australia.

Looking at the titles of the papers to be presented at this Conference, it is clear that valuable reflection on the extent of our 'togetherness' will take place at different levels over the next few days. At the more macro level, there will be opportunities to examine the extent to which our international education policies, practices, provisions and services are well coordinated. At the more micro level, we will be invited to bring under scrutiny a whole range of activities which support international student learning and adjustments. Although the macro and micro levels are obviously inter-related, they have not always been well integrated. We are all aware of some of the tensions. This Conference provides the ideal social forum to examine the extent and strength of our 'togetherness' across levels and boundaries.

The aim of my presentation is to open and broaden the debate of 'in it together' at different levels, and to stress the significance of developing an overall vision and sense of direction for our international education activities. In the first part of the presentation, I will examine different definitions and types of international education activities and relate these to the concept of being 'in it together' at the broad level. I will discuss how efforts to achieve the educational, social and cultural goals of international education can be shattered when there are tensions between different international agendas. In the second part of the presentation, I will zoom in at the classroom level. I will show some research findings which reveal that many local and international students are not quite 'in it together', and how, based on the characteristics of students most positive about it, we can plan learning environments that prepare students for their common future in the region. In the final part of the presentation, I will argue that if we are serious about international education and about our long-term engagement in the region, we must develop a clear sense of direction and principles to guide all our international education activities. The three concepts of reciprocity, responsibility and opportunities are viewed as fundamental in this respect and will form the conceptual thread throughout the discussion.

Let's start by reflecting on the concept of being 'in it together' at the broad level. One important question is who do we include in the "together". If we consider all stakeholders and practitioners involved in the field of international education different conceptualisations of international education emerge. Although all of us may well be 'in it', it is doubtful that we all share the same definition of the "it", ie what we mean by international education, what we see as the overall goals of international education, and what we are personally and professionally striving for in that context.

The problem of definition is not a trivial one. Depending on whether international education is defined in economic terms such as, "education exports" or "the education trade", or alternatively in educational terms such as, "the effort made to increase the international and intercultural knowledge and skills of students", we may be talking about something totally different, although not necessarily incompatible. The problem of definition is also reflected in the focus of some Australian Conferences which address issues of international education. The IDP Conference, for example, has been dominated exclusively, until very recently, by the economic agendas of policy decision-makers, managers and marketers in the international education trade. In that context, international education refers to education markets, and issues related to the quality of international education are expressed in terms of customer satisfaction rather than in terms of educational, social and cultural value for students. In contrast, in conferences such as HERDSA, AARE or vocational education forums, which attract teachers and some student support staff, the international education debate focuses around cross-cultural and language issues related to learning or around the development of internationalised curricula aimed at enriching the quality of education of all students. Participants to each of these conferences are involved in the field of international education, but the extent to which they are really pulling "together" in the same direction is not obvious. With its focus on people with an interest in the delivery of all kinds of quality services to international students, the ISANA conference sits somewhere in the middle between macro and micro, and therefore provides an ideal social forum to discuss issues of critical importance.

The problem of definitions and tensions between agendas is due, in my view, to the lack of leadership and overall long-term vision in Australia regarding international education. In the absence of a sense of direction and in the context of shrinking government support for tertiary institutions, economic agendas have been allowed to hijack the process of internationalisation of education. Although the development of long-term, reciprocal international education activities and internationalised curricula are strongly encouraged in most institutions, non-profit initiatives are considered by many administrators as low priority in the internationalisation process. Consequently, initiatives getting most of the resources are often those in the service of market-oriented activities since they bring immediate return in $ value.

Although different types of international education activities may co-exist and occasionally support one another, the different agendas reveal fundamental differences in priorities and stress the fact that not everybody involved in international education is necessarily in it together even within institutions.

Our reflection on who is 'in it together' at the broad level can be extended even further. By definition, international education activities involve international partners. The question then, is to what extent does our togetherness include our international partners as full partners? If we are serious about our engagement in the region, it is vital that we recognise the significance of reciprocity, responsibility, equality and joint opportunities in the development of partnerships. Due to the variety of possible international education activities, there is no easy answer to the question of togetherness. If we look at the international activities that have a clear educational, social or cultural focus, most appear to involve a reciprocal, responsible two-way process of interaction, and the development of long-term relationships across nations. In this category are staff and student exchange programs, international academic cooperation agreements, curricula in which compulsory parts are offered in an institution abroad, curriculum units developed in collaboration across institutions, joint research ventures, etc. A report prepared by IDP and published last year (Back, Davis & Olsen, 1996), entitled Internationalisation and higher education: Goals and Strategies documented the explosion of such initiatives in Australia in recent years. Many international students as well as local students have already benefited from those projects which are developed in a spirit of reciprocity and mutual responsibility, and which involve multiple ownership and joint opportunities. The nature of these activities naturally requires that international partners be full partners, the progress of the activities be jointly monitored and that mutual adjustments be made, if necessary, to maintain and further strengthen the relationship.

The significance of developing strong, responsible and long-term relationships with our education partners in the region should not be underestimated. Yet, recent events have highlighted some tensions between different international education agendas. I am referring to Australian media coverage of international education and the financial difficulties experienced by Asian countries in the region. With few exceptions, if any, all articles published in The Australian over the past five weeks have focused on the economic impact of the crisis on our education exports. The dominant message conveyed to readers, and which reflected the economic report commissioned by IDP on the topic, was that the issue is about economics, the concerns are for Australia, and the problems can be analysed and addressed in strategic and financial terms. Even the story of an international student who had been called home by her family, unable to support her anymore, ended up in economic terms from the Australian media viewpoint.

Her plight personifies the concern being expressed by universities - that the situation in Asia will hit the nation's $3 billion education export industry. (Illing, 1997)

Instead of showing some compassion, a sense of global social responsibility, and in the process reaffirming our educational commitment to our partners in the region, such public statements highlight Australia's self-centred attitude in the face of others' adversity. What a missed opportunity to gain some face with our Asian neighbours! But also how irritating for those in Australia who are engaged in two-way responsible relationships with their Asian partners and are seriously concerned by the human aspects of the situation.

Perhaps a special report should be commissioned to analyse the short-term and long-term impact on people of international education in relation to the Asian economic crisis? This may hopefully counterbalance the dominant economic and one-sided voices. Such a report could be prepared by a panel of stakeholders and practitioners from the whole region including Australia. The report could analyse the situation from the point of view of partnerships, joint responsibilities and above all long-term vision for our educational relationships.

The point I want to make here, is that other Australian voices must be heard on this issue. The voices of those who consider international education as the development of long-term relationships with our Asian neighbours and are concerned by the limitations of short-term market-oriented mentalities. The voices of those who truly believe that international education means being 'in it together' and are currently working hard, in collaboration with their Asian partners, at achieving that aim.

In the conclusion of his book, Is Australia an Asian country? Stephen Fitzgerald (1997) argues that we must develop a vision for ourselves in the region. He stresses the importance of promoting equality in partnerships, of seeking harmonious solutions to intra-regional problems in collaboration with our partners and in developing policies and programmes which are not only culturally pluralist and non-discriminatory but which also give centrality to human beings. Being 'in it together' at the broad level of international education means endorsing and actually applying such principles.

At a more micro-level, multi-national, multicultural classrooms form another level of being in it together. But to what extent are local and international students really in it together? To what extent are they encouraged during their study in an international environment to prepare their common future in the region? This issue is of critical importance to achieve any long-term vision. In the context of a global, interdependent world, the workplace of tomorrow whether at home or abroad will involve interactions between people from different cultures. Students lacking the positive attitude and confidence necessary to negotiate across cultures will be at a major disadvantage compared with those at ease in intercultural encounters. Some of our graduates may even become responsible for managing productive diversity, along the lines suggested by Cope & Kalantzis (1997). International, multicultural classrooms, therefore, provide ideal social environments for students to develop the skills and attitudes to participate appropriately in culturally diverse community and work environments. They will need to be able to tolerate multiple frames of reference and to remain critical of their own belief systems and biases. They will need a capacity to read socially and culturally diverse situations and to collaborate in the design of socio-cultural appropriate solutions. These forms of learning can only be developed in environments where students are induced to be fully 'in it together'.

According to Knight & de Wit (1995), one of the major functions of international education is to enable students

to understand, appreciate and articulate the reality of interdependence among nations (environmental, economic, cultural and social) and therefore prepare [those involved] to function in an international and intercultural context (p.13).

Yet, one of the major obstacles to achieving the educational, social and cultural aims of international education in Australia is the fact that the majority of students are currently not 'in it together'. It is often noticed on university and TAFE campuses that Australian students and students from Asian backgrounds do not spontaneously mix, neither in class for group work nor outside for social activities. Survey reports (Burns, 1991; Volet & Pears, 1995) and research studies (Nesdale & Todd, 1993; Quintrell & Westwood, 1994; Volet & Ang, in press) indicate that the two groups tend to study 'in parallel'. The unique opportunities for reciprocal inter-cultural learning and development are therefore not being used to full advantage. In the current economic context, this is a critical issue which, if not addressed, may have a long-term impact on our international relations in the region.

To illustrate the magnitude of the problem, I will show the results of some recent research on university students' attitudes towards group work, more specifically students' attitudes towards the completion of assignments in culturally mixed groups of local and international students. 651 undergraduate students in business from two universities participated in the study. An original instrument was developed to measure students' attitudes. The instrument is psychometrically sound and was found suitable for use with students from Chinese and Australian backgrounds. In this presentation, I will report only a few selected results and compare only four groups of students.

Table1: Mean scores and standard deviations

by birth vs
Emotional .18
Friendship .35
Mixed group
(cultural mix)

AusAus Australian born in Australia
AusOther Australian born in Other countries
AusSM Australian born in Singapore/Malaysia
IntSM International from (&born) in Singapore/Malaysia

TABLE 1 compares the attitudes towards some aspects of group work and in particular towards working in mixed groups of four groups of students: one group of international students (IntSM), formed exclusively of students from Singapore or Malaysia and from Chinese background, and three groups of Australian students. The three groups of Australian students were: Australian permanent residents born in Australia (AusAus); Australian permanent residents born in Singapore or Malaysia (AusSM); and Australian permanent residents born in a country other than Australia, Singapore or Malaysia. Comparing these four groups was useful, not so much with regard to students' ethnic origin, but with regard to their distinct overall educational-social-cultural-linguistic profile and history.

Looking across the rows, it can be seen that those who displayed the most positive attitudes towards group work were systematically the two groups of Australian students bi-cultural by birth. The analyses comparing the combined groups of students bi-cultural by birth with the other two groups of students revealed statistically significant differences for all aspects.

Let's look at the patterns of findings of each group in turn. The profile of the Australian students born in Australia (AusAus) is of serious concern in the context of international education. These students displayed relatively positive attitudes towards the friendship aspects of group work and relatively negative attitudes towards mixed groups. In addition, their positive views about the social aspects of group work were not related to mixing with peers from other cultures. Put quite bluntly, these findings indicate that these students valued the opportunities to socialise in group work but their valuing of social aspects did not extend to students from other cultures.

The pattern of results displayed by the group of Chinese international students from Singapore/Malaysia (IntSM) was totally different. Their relatively negative attitudes towards the friendship aspects of group work suggests that they treated formal group work as serious academic work and not as an opportunity for socialising, an interpretation which was supported by interview data. Their more positive views about mixed groups, however, suggests that mixing with local Australian students was considered as part of their study abroad experience and perhaps treated as involving some form of intercultural learning. Renshaw's (1997) research at the University of Queensland revealed that some international students were encouraged by their parents to seek some intercultural experience during their stay in Australia and not to spend all their time with co-nationals.

Finally, and in contrast to the other groups, the Australian students born in Singapore/Malaysia (AusSM) had high scores on both 'Friendship' and 'Mixed group' aspects. In addition, the two scores were highly correlated. This indicates that their positive views about the social aspects of group work included all students. In other words, their substantial personal bi-cultural experience had made them confident and also keen to further mix across cultures. A similar pattern emerged for the group of Australian students born in other countries.

It is critical at this point, to highlight some of the meaningful socio-cultural and experiential characteristics of the four groups, and to play down their ethnicity labels. This can be done by re-ordering the groups in relation to their attitudes and then examining each group's characteristics. Symbolically, the ethnicity labels of the groups have been removed in FIGURE 1 to stress the significance of the socio-cultural and experiential characteristics of the groups rather than their ethnic origin.

Figure 1: Profile of three groups in relation to their attitudes towards group work and mixed groups

On the left hand side is the group of Australian students born in Australia. This group is characterised by the fact that all students were born in their country of permanent residence and had monolingual backgrounds. Only 8% of them spoke a second language. Next on this very rough scale is the group of Chinese international students from Singapore/Malaysia. Like the Australian students, they were born in their country of permanent residence but 67% of them spoke at least two languages. In addition, their study abroad experience may have set in place the development of a marginal bi-cultural background. Finally we have the two groups of students with a personal bi-cultural background. These students would typically be first generation migrants partially or totally Australian educated. 61% of them spoke at least two languages and presumably all of them had substantial personal experience of crossing cultural borders.

These group findings obviously hide individual differences and generalisation is limited due to the specific groups involved in the study. However, there is converging evidence regarding the significance of bi-cultural background from other sources. Teachers' records of the composition of self-selected small groups in another large class of university students revealed that two-thirds of the Australian students who were members of mixed groups had a bi-cultural background while the percentage was only 8% in the Australian-only groups. Together, these results indicate that significant intercultural experience may contribute to the development of positive views about mixing across cultures.

But what do students themselves think about mixing in cross-cultural groups? According to both local and international students, when mixing takes place it is by chance rather than by choice. Interviews with students who had just been involved in formal group work, revealed that, in students' opinion, the factor most responsible for lack of mixing is the cultural-emotional connectedness provided by peers from similar background. What they are referring to is, for example, thinking along the same wavelength, sharing a similar communication style and sense of humour. Other factors, perceived as relatively less important were language, negative stereotyping and practical considerations. The lack of importance given to language should be interpreted in relation to the high level of English proficiency of the particular group of Chinese students involved in that study. It is expected that language would be given much more importance by groups of students less proficient in English. Only a few students spontaneously declared that cultural mix during study abroad was important to them.

The next critical question is, do perceptions change after experience of mixing? Group interviews with students who had just completed an assignment in mixed groups revealed some changes in perceptions and some recognition that they initially may have had stereotyped views about each other. For some students changes in perceptions led to a realisation that cultural differences may not be as important as having similar goals and a mutual commitment to invest time and energy in the task.

It doesn't matter which country a group member is from, it is more the person that matters.

with opportunities to work together, perceptions change....

However, and despite changes in perceptions, there was no evidence in our interviews that once students had been involved in a successful mixed group experience, they would seek further intercultural encounters. The typical view, coming from both groups, was that they may not avoid mixing but they would 'not go out of their way' to deliberately look for it. Additional evidence on lack of change over time was revealed in our cross-sectional data on students' attitudes towards mixed groups. As illustrated in FIGURE 2, the second year students in our study displayed even more negative attitudes than the first year students. We obviously need longitudinal data to explore this issue further as there may be a cohort effect.

Figure 2: Mixed group (cultural mix) by year of study

In conclusion, while some of these results are disturbing, they also provide useful directions for the development of appropriate international learning environments in the future. On the one hand, the little effort made by local and international students alike to mix across cultures defeats the purpose of internationalisation. Without students mixing, the educational, social and cultural goals of internationalisation cannot be achieved. The outcomes are negative even from an economic perspective, as students are not acquiring the skills necessary for working in an increasingly multicultural workplace.

On the other hand, the positive views of students from bi-cultural background, stresses the fact that attitudes are not inherent to any particular group but are acquired through significant experiences. This finding opens new avenues and opportunities for the future of international education. Being 'in it together' at the level of the classroom means adopting positive, forward-looking and responsible attitudes towards reciprocal cultural understanding, cultural diversity and intercultural learning.

In the final part of this presentation, I would like to come back to the issue of overall vision and principles to guide the direction of international education activities in Australia. First, I would like to make it clear that an international activity which brings economic returns to an institution is not necessarily bad. Reciprocally, an international activity which does not involve profit may not always be good. If we are serious about our engagement in the region, the question that we should ask when developing a new initiative is whether that initiative will contribute positively to the development of long-term relationships with our neighbours. At least we should ensure that it will not jeopardise our overall efforts to develop such relationships. The concepts of reciprocity, responsibility and joint opportunities are useful as criteria to assess the long-term value of new initiatives.

If we take the case of the education trade, the concept of joint opportunities comes to mind. We have available in Australia high quality education, and others are in need of such services. Offering our services is fine. But if we do it, we must also consider the concepts of reciprocity and responsibility. Providing tertiary education to international students is a serious matter. Education is not any market commodity. It involves people, communities, nations and the future of international relations. Reciprocity means ensuring that the provisions of educational services are fully negotiated between equal partners, and that whenever possible, deliberate attempts are made to incorporate some reciprocal arrangements. It may involve inviting colleagues from the region to teach whole courses in our own programmes in Australia. Alternatively, the content of some courses could be developed in a process of genuine, reciprocal collaboration with Asian partners. The possibilities for including elements of reciprocity are endless. We just have to be committed and innovative. It is critical in that regard that we put aside our sense of superiority with regard to education, recognise the richness of diversity in our community and address the ethnocentrism of many of our education practices and curricula. Responsibility means ensuring that all our international education initiatives comply fully with the Code of Ethical Practice developed by the AVCC and that no international education initiative pays only lip service to the requirements of high educational and ethical standards. If our vision is for long-term engagement in the region, we cannot let short-term economic agendas dominate the scene and appropriate the process of internationalisation of education.

At the micro level of teaching and learning, classroom practices and academic services to international students, the same principles can be applied. Educating students today is preparing our long-term engagement with our Asian neighbours. Educating students from Asia along side Australian students is a unique opportunity for Australia to ensure that the next generation of Australians and Asians alike are prepared and committed to develop and maintain reciprocal long-term relationships. This is an opportunity which cannot be missed. The risk, however, would be to embark in such a valuable venture from a single cultural perspective. It is imperative that any effort to promote intercultural learning in international, multicultural classrooms be made in a culturally sensitive and inclusive way. A number of papers at this Conference address such issues and propose innovative and promising strategies. Our own research has revealed the significance of powerful cultural-emotional dimensions when people are required to mix across cultures. The finding that both local and international students were reluctant to seek out future opportunities to work with peers from other cultures, even after a successful cross-cultural experience delivers a particularly strong message. It stresses the need for greater collaboration on issues of teaching and learning across nations and cultures. Institutions must initiate and support strongly cross-cultural collaborative projects that involve educators from the countries receiving the students and educators from the countries sending the students.

The future of international education is in the strength of our togetherness. To be 'in it together' is the key to our long-term engagement in the region.