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Key note: Global standards & protocol for the rights of international students in Australia

Race Race Discrimination

Key note: Global standards & protocol for the rights of international students in Australia

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes

Building an International Education Strategy conference
19 July 2011, Melbourne


Good morning. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri people, and their elders past and present. You are the original inhabitants and custodians of this land, and as such have a special place that should be acknowledged and respected. You are the descendants of the world's oldest continuing culture. 

This is my first keynote address in Melbourne since the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Honourable Jeanette Powell, said in a media statement that, "Acknowledgment of Country is not mandated, never had been and nor should it be". She clarified the Coalition Government's view that such acknowledgments may be diminished if they become tokenistic.

Acknowledgments of Country have never been mandated. Should they be? This isn't for me to comment on definitively. However, the in-principle arguments for Acknowledgments of Country are similar to the rationale for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That is, we recognise that you came before us, with unique world views, spiritual practices, and a profound connection to your lands. We understand that colonisation and dispossession has resulted in historic and deep disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  Truth must precede reconciliation. Acknowledgment of colonisation, dispossession, and the distinctive contribution that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make to our national life is just part of this.

Acknowledgments to Country - even the briefest reference - are not tokenistic. They will only be tokenistic when our policies lack substance, and when our intentions are not in line with the principle of self-determination. I strongly encourage all Ministers in Victoria - in line with the respect agenda - to continue to acknowledge traditional owners across the state.

I now also acknowledge my colleague Chris Nyland, Chancellors and Vice Chancellors, academics, service providers, colleagues across government, representatives from international student bodies and international students.

Today I've been invited to speak about

  • my recent observations relating to international education in Australia; and
  • the DRAFT Minimum Standards for International Student Safety.

As some of you may know, I am coming towards the end of my term as Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner. I am not representative of the communities I have worked with closely in this role. I've never been comfortable, or able to fully reconcile, this situation. As the Federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and a life-long disability advocate - I know the importance of using my own voice to tell my own story. There is no substitute for representative voices. I've always considered it a tremendous responsibility in the race portfolio, to adequately and accurately communicate the diverse views and experiences of people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, and culturally and linguistically diverse communities. To include first voice in my work, I've done two things. First, I've consulted heavily - which I acknowledge can sometimes be a burden on some community groups who already feel over-consulted, but not listened to. And over-consulted but not understood. Second, I have told stories. Now please let me be clear. I'm not suggesting that I've illuminated the world with my storytelling. What I am suggesting is that stories deserve to be told. In fact, in my industry I've discovered that some stories contain such critical messages that they almost demand to be told. In my role, I've been able to illustrate, and practically communicate, important principles, gaps and risks through these stories. Stories are powerful and perceptive, and capture peoples' attention in a way that data can't (I apologise to the academics here). It's probably not hard for you to imagine that people working in the human rights sector are often regarded, or dismissed, as ideologues. Stories provide a reality check, they test our assumptions, and can be difficult to forget - which makes them an important tool for advocates and human rights practitioners.

Issues such as international student safety provide us with important insight into our national identity, our ways of thinking, our attachments and our core values. I'm going to make two key observations about developments in international education, and then move on to discuss the Minimum Standards. 

First, public discussions about international students have, similar to a number of other issues, given rise to the idea of an insider and an outsider status. What does it actually mean to be an outsider - that you don't have citizenship? That you pray to a God that doesn't resonate with your neighbour? That your skin isn't the same colour as mine? That my identity - my cultural values, my political beliefs, my sense of nationality, my literary persuasions and my professional commitments - is inherently incompatible with yours? 

Creating an outsider status for some members of our society can certainly constitute racism, and racial discrimination; it keeps people vulnerable, and our societies fragmented and unequal. Nobody wins. 

However, it's also an extraordinary failure of our imagination. It's a failure to understand the world, and its deep interconnectedness. An interconnectedness from which it is now impossible to step back. 

The international student studying in Australia in 2011 may be the very person who contributes to addressing acute, global health epidemics, reducing the social impact of climate change, or inventing technologies like the Internet, which has entirely transformed the landscape of how we communicate, learn and live. If we want to achieve excellence in international education, we need to be mindful of this. 

We need to remember that international education gives us the potential to share some of our brightest ideas:

  • with people who may go out to become leaders in Australia, in the region or across the world;
  • with people who may become significant thinkers, inventors and problem solvers; and
  • with people who return to their communities, and become providers for their families and broader community. 

We should ALL win with international education. It should never be about one-way profiteering. And in turn, it gives Australia important access to the diversity, the wisdom, innovation and the big ideas of international student populations from across the globe. 

My second point is actually a question. This conference rightly focuses on strategy.  Why is it that international education, with its enormous profit generation, and it's real potential to impact on foreign relations - doesn't invoke the same level of investment or attention from the Australian Government as domestic higher education? Unlike many of you in the room, I'm not an expert on international education. I'm not necessarily well positioned to answer this question. But I want to flag my keen interest in your thoughts and responses.

Minimum Standards - Strategy         

Earlier in this speech, I noted the importance of storytelling. Stories, both positive and bleak, have informed the drafting of the Minimum Standards for International Student Safety. Behind every standard in the DRAFT document - there is a story, or multiple stories, that have come from international students, teachers, providers, or technical experts.

Come with me now. I want you to imagine some experiences that most of us in this room have never had.

Imagine how it feels to negotiate with a towering bureaucracy in your second or third language. Many international students have described the routine difficulties they experience in accessing government services.

Imagine feeling like a second-class student, because you have limited entitlements. This is how international students commonly describe their feelings about transport concessions in Victoria and New South Wales. 

Imagine having to choose between an exploitative job, or no job. Imagine earning less than four dollars an hour. Imagine paying a work bond to secure work experience. 

Imagine having to choose between overcrowded housing, or no housing. Imagine having to supplement your rent with sexual favours.

Imagine paying tax, but not having access to the same services as citizen taxpayers.

Imagine finding yourself in a violent relationship, with no reliable support networks or pathways for assistance.

Imagine feeling unsafe in your community each day. You don't have to imagine. Nitin Garg from Melbourne became a popular reference point for the attacks against international students, when he was violently stabbed, and died on his way to work.

Imagine feeling chronic and persistent social isolation. You don't have to imagine.  It's real. Zhang Hong Jie, an international student in Canberra, was discovered six months after her death in an apartment in Belconnen.

These are just some of the stories.

Given the focus of this conference, I want to focus on the strategic thinking behind the standards document. The idea for a set of Minimum Standards originated from a number of academics, who largely agreed that it could be a useful way forward in:

  • progressing the quality of the international student experience; and
  • improving the enjoyment of their rights.

Discussions about international student safety and welfare in Australia long preceded the Commission's involvement in the Standards. In that sense, we are relative new comers to the discussion. We are certainly not experts in international education.  One of our first tasks was to test the idea of a set of Minimum Standards to see whether, from the international student perspective, it held any perceived weight or value.  The Commission spent around six months testing this idea with international students, academics, and flagging the suggestion with policy makers. Minimum standards, as we explained during consultations and discussions with stakeholders, are soft standards.  As with most human rights standards, minimum standards for international student safety would be progressively realised.

International students, and their representatives, were overwhelmingly supportive of the Commission working in partnership with them - and other stakeholders - to develop DRAFT Minimum Standards. Why? Here were their leading reasons:

  • it seemed like a more coordinated approach to the full suite of issues that impact on international student safety and welfare
  • it recognised the connectedness of the real life issues impacting on international students
  • it placed a proper emphasis on student rights
  • it served an education function - for international students, policy makers and service providers
  • it clearly articulated the federal and state government's respective duties of care.

As with work around most complex issues, it can be difficult to plan a comprehensive process. And it's important to acknowledge honestly that our work in this area has been produced with limited resources. As such, we haven't had national discussions with international student populations, and industry stakeholders.  We hope to remedy that to some degree throughout 2011. It’s also important to note that the Commission's process, though plainly imperfect, only has legitimacy because of the ongoing involvement of international students, and their representatives.

Phase One of the process focused on establishing whether a set of Minimum Standards could serve a useful purpose. That is, to improve human rights protections for international students. It was informed largely by informal consultation and discussion with international students, and their representatives. 

Phase Two of the process focused on:

  • properly explaining the problems and challenges
  • identifying what rights and human rights standards are invoked
  • identifying what could reasonably be addressed through a set of standards.

This phase was informed by a series of policy workshop sessions, which invited input from the usual, and not-so-usual, suspects. A series of papers were then produced as a result of these workshop sessions, and published through the Academy of Social Sciences. They are linked from our website.  

The Third Phase of the process - and undoubtedly the most complex - was the initial drafting stage. An initial draft of the standards was tested with a small group of experts, and international students, for key input. A revised version was then tested with technical working groups in New South Wales and Victoria. I anticipate that the Race Discrimination Team will test this work in Queensland in the near future.

The current DRAFT, whilst not hundreds of pages, could not be described as brief. As one helpful colleague said to us, if those are minimum standards, I'd hate to see maximum standards. But there are many issues to cover.

DEEWR is currently providing whole of government feedback on the draft document.  I'd like to sincerely thank DEEWR for coordinating this advice. It will assist us in further refining the document, and ensuring its relevance, technical accuracy and reasonable application. I expect that the Commission will continue to be in discussion with the Australian Government, and with state and territory governments, in the coming months.

The DRAFT Minimum Standards are currently confidential - not a view shared by one person with whom we consulted, and the newspaper they talked to- so I can't speak to them in great detail. I am able to share the following information.  The standards:

  • rely heavily on the principles of non-discrimination and equality between domestic and international students
  • recognise that racial discrimination is one element of harm that could put international students at risk - some international students experience multiple forms of discrimination
  • acknowledge that international students should not be subjected to discriminatory treatment in law, or in practice, on account of race, colour, gender, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, cultural beliefs or practices, national, ethnic or social origin, property, birth or other status
  • Recognise that international students have many of the same rights as other Australians, as set out in international conventions, as well as protections in relation to their status as temporary migrants, and migrant workers.  Even though Australia is not a signatory to the Migrant Workers Convention, this remains an important international standard.

In their current form, the DRAFT standards include the following thematic areas:

  • consumer rights and quality education
  • health and safety
  • accommodation
  • employment
  • transport
  • immigration; and
  • information and privacy.

In drafting the document, the Commission was particularly concerned with technical accuracy (in relation to the existing regulatory environment), relevance, and ensuring that the standards were implementable and achievable.

Once the Commission has incorporated government feedback, and gone through its own internal approval processes, we expect that the DRAFT will then be available for wider public comment.

Before I conclude, I'll briefly touch on the key challenges with the standards. These challenges are-

  • who will monitor the implementation or observance of the standards?
  • what steps can be taken to ensure that they remain a live document?
  • how can we improve sector-wide buy-in?
  • sometimes soft standards develop into hard standards.  If they don't, how do we maximise the Minimum Standards, to achieve maximum positive outcomes for international students?
  • and finally, everyone's favourite challenge - operating in a federal system.  Explaining and negotiating - to some degree - the standards, with Commonwealth agencies, and state and territory governments.

The Minimum Standards document is not the solution. It hopefully presents part of a solution. In 2009, human rights academic, George Williams wrote an article titled 'listening, not talking'. This remains my best advice to government and industry stakeholders in their future work with international students.

I warned you I was a story-teller- so let me end with a personal anecdote. My daughter Rachel is studying French in year eight at school, and already talking about "immersing herself in the language" in an overseas country. It's desperately important to me that, if she takes on that challenge it will be safe, fulfilling and enjoyable for her. I don't see how we can reasonably expect that positive experience for our children overseas, and not do the best that we can to provide the same experience for international students here in Australia.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.