By Dr Hemant R Ojha
Dr Ojha is a University academic in Australia and a well-known social science researcher in the field of environment and international development. His twitter handle is @ojhahemant1.
Many of you may already be thinking of coming to Australia for higher studies. As the third largest destination for international students, just behind the USA and the UK, student experience in Australia is becoming a major area of public interest and government attention. And obviously, you are keen to know about life, studies and work in a new country of your choice.
I studied in Nepal, India and the UK and had a brief exposure to education systems of North America and Europe. My Australia visit started only after I have these exposures, and I was keen to learn how studies, teaching and student life in Australia compares with other countries. That was the curiosity when I first arrived in Australia in 2011, and since then, I have been able to get some answers, which could be useful to many of you who are still new to Australia.
I have had the experience of teaching and working with three of the eight Group of Eight elite Universities in Australia. More than that I have closely interacted with numerous international students as part of diasporic community and social engagement. I summarise 6 lessons for prospective international students considering Australia for further studies.
I have seen students stressing out for completing assignments soon after overnight works. Others do not meet minimum attendance requirement as they spend too much time on going out and touring. I have also come across those who spend more time in work than study, thus achieving poor study outcomes. You do not need to spend all of your valuable time in the study – if you are able to manage well, there is enough time for some paid work and also for fun with your friends and communities, while doing studies well.
No single strategy can work for everyone as students have different financial situations, study requirements, and work expectations. What all I can advise on this is that you need to carefully assess:
From the classroom to workplace and community life, one thing I have consistently found intriguing is that international students too often struggle to communicate and present themselves effectively. They are often very competent on subject matters and secure exam results well above the average expected level of competency. However, due to limitations of language and culturally fixated styles of communication not considered smart in the Western society, their message does not come across well. I have heard people asking the salesperson in a shop “Give me that box”, while the latter still smiles and says “No problem, sir”. A local person is more likely to say “Can I have a look at that box, please?”. The latter is a more polite way to express the same thing.
One time, one of my Aussie friends and I were checking out after buying a few things in a supermarket. “What a rude response” my friend said, after we came out of the shop, indicating his unhappiness over the salesperson, who failed do smile at us. Perhaps she was a new international student not yet trained to ‘smile’ at the workplace.
Here, I do not mean that Asian or African people are impolite compared to Australians. Perhaps, people in the developing communities have stronger traditional values with greater respect for fellow human beings than any industrialised countries. In the developed world, the climax form of corporate culture has required everyone to be smart, smiling, polite and communicative in the workplace for efficiency.
Your people skill counts everywhere you go. As a student, you are frequently required to work in groups. When you work part of your time for money, you will have to interact with a number of people. You are also supposed to interact with your teachers on matters related to studies. When you have any issue on the study, you should be able to come forward and talk to the relevant authority in the University. More importantly, if you decided to stay in Australia after graduation and want to apply for the job, your interview is the most critical point where your people skill is judged.
What all this means is that international students confront a very different people skills situation in Australia, and to succeed during the study and post-study career, people and communication skills are as important as the core subject matter knowledge, in the sophisticated industrialized society.
Your academic life is closely overseen by your University supervisors, especially if you are doing post-graduate studies or honors level work at Bachelor degree. I have seen several instances in which international students are under stress due to strained relationships with their supervisors. In Australian system, post-graduate supervisors are given tremendous power over the students when it comes to defining progress and achievement of the student. And the Universities have the power (and in fact obligation by law) to report to the Immigration any instances of unsatisfactory study progress of international students. This means that post-graduate international students, even when they are genuinely committed to the study, feel insecure and have a fear and high level of anxiety during the study. Their research performance at times becomes a survival compulsion rather than a joyful outcome of intellectual curiosity and commitment.
In particular, PhD studies modality in Australia involves primarily a relationship between the candidate and his or her supervisor. The power imbalance between the two actors means that in a lot of situation the intellectual autonomy is compromised. Compared to North American model, the Australian approach, modelled after the UK one, concentrate on interactions among fewer individuals, often with a single primary supervisor. As a result, PhD students feel greatly constrained in their study, although if you are lucky, you may find greatly empowering supervisors too, who use their discretionary power to further empower and assist you in your learning (but this is not so common).
In these situations of University supervisors having discretionary powers, what you need to do is to proactively manage your supervisors, and not let supervisors manage you. For example, if you are late in asking for a meeting, proposing an idea for your research, and discussing next steps in your research, then you will see these things coming from your supervisor. You will then find it hard to reject, and as result, you will slowly be doing the research of your supervisor and not yours.
Most international students enjoy living in Australia, though how much you enjoy varies across different cities and places in Australia. I have seen some students who only live physically in Australia, and mentally are always at home, especially younger students coming to study bachelor level. Such young students miss their family and friends so much that they are not fully living while they are in Australia.
Many international students see studies as a step towards permanent residency. This is their ideal dream. There are others who deem for international career regardless of permanent settlement in Australia. Many of those who wish to stay on, this is something achievable and eventually they settle in Australia. Their dream fulfilled. However, there are students who have little chance of getting a permanent residence technically – their course or degree is not listed in the priority list for residency, or their age limit has crossed, or their performance in English is below the required level. The problem is not that they do not get permanent residency, but that they are not ready for options B and C. Why will you do if plan A fails? You need to have plan B and C too.
Many countries have their diasporic communities in Australia. What I find lacking is many of the international students do not show interest to look for such communities and engage with them when there is an opportunity to do so. In fact, such communities can at times offer you home away from home – they could invite you in the key festival times, join community events and so on so forth.