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Launch of the Principles to promote and protect the human rights of international students (2012)

Race Discrimination

Launch of the Principles to promote and protect the human rights of international students

Australian International Education Conference

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Thursday 4th October 2012

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Each year, families all over the globe bid farewell to loved ones as they set out overseas – to study, to work, to explore a wider world. They do so expecting that these loved ones will be treated with respect and with dignity – that they will have the same sort of access to services as others at their destination; that they will be safe; that their rights as human beings will be recognised wherever they go.

Australian families certainly have these expectations, and the families of those travelling to Australia are entitled to exactly the same – more so, in some cases, given this nation’s high standard of living and reputation for equality. As such, these families entrust us with their sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, partners and friends – an increasing number of whom have chosen not just to visit, but to study on our shores.

In fact, international student enrolments have risen from under 100,000 in 1994 to over 500,000 in 2011. While not at their peak, this nonetheless means that, last year, over half a million people were seeking opportunity in Australia – many of them having saved for years for the chance to further their education; to gain skills and qualifications that may not be available in their country of origin; to pursue a particular career, make a life or expand their children’s horizons.

In doing so, many forsake strong connections for a place in which they may not know a soul. They must learn quickly, then, to navigate a breadth of unfamiliar systems and conventions in what is often their second or third language. Despite this challenge – and to their credit as well as to Australia’s – what many students find is very positive, the vast majority reporting high levels of satisfaction[1] and vindicating this country’s reputation as a popular study destination.

The international student experience

A positive experience, however, is not shared by all those who come from overseas to study here. As one computing student from Indonesia has explained:

It is a lot more individualistic here. It’s really difficult if you don’t have friends because you don’t have many people that care about you.[2]

The result is that social isolation, poverty, exclusion from health services or affordable housing, sexual harassment and exploitation, excessive transport costs, and prohibitive fees to access government schools for their children are just some of the disadvantages confronting those who rightly come expecting more.

This is in addition, of course, to the occasional physical violence we know has been experienced by some in recent years; as well as the discrimination and hostility that many report.

All of this means that some international students experience life in Australia as second class members of the community, despite their hopes of a first class education. This is notwithstanding the fact that international students pay for this education; are taxed on any income they earn here; and are required to comply with domestic law like anybody else.

As an engineering student from China describes:

I don’t have what you call a room. Mine is a living room partition. It’s not really locked up so I prefer to call it my shack...[3]

The persistence of stories like this indicates that, while we acknowledge the economic benefits of providing education services to overseas students, this sits ambivalently beside the inconsistent welcome that some new arrivals find.

Consequently, a range of initiatives – from the Council of Australian Government’s International Student Strategy for Australia: 2010-2014; through greater accountability of the education services sector; to better information provision through the Federal Government’s Studying in Australia information portal – have reflected the determination of governments and educational institutions to improve the international student experience and cement the global community’s confidence in what Australia has to offer.

Broadening the conversation

With students from overseas continuing to experience economic insecurity, social isolation and other forms of disadvantage, however, we need to improve our welcome even further. We need to get better at meeting our international obligations to provide safety and equality. We also need to get better at recognising the many other social, intellectual and intercultural benefits that students from overseas bring to our midst.

After all, we already understand the enormous value of Australia’s cultural diversity, with 26% of our population born overseas and over 260 different languages spoken. We’re aware that we all gain when each person brings something different to the table.

It is no stretch, then, to recognise the ways in which international students propel this diversity – fostering an exchange of experiences and ideas; building understanding in interactions amongst the study body; expanding the skills of their chosen industry; and strengthening Australia’s connections in a global community of knowledge.

More than just fuelling the nation’s third largest export, then – more than creating jobs and increasing tourism – the participation of international students in Australian life contributes to our wider place in the world. When these students return home, they influence their national industry, in turn supporting the health of the global economy. When they remain here, their investment in their own education is ultimately to all of our advantage, especially if they assume leadership positions in areas such as government and business.

In short, Australia benefits when it participates in the education of the global, as well as the domestic, community. If we cannot do this in a supportive way, opportunities will be lost to us – promise, possibility and talent being channelled elsewhere. Clearly, and as bodies across the sector recognise, there remains an imperative to improve on what Australia can provide.

The Principles

With so many organisations responsible for delivering on this imperative, though, the Commission saw a need for something universal – something underpinning existing initiatives in its broader recognition of human rights; something clear and simple which was capable of being applied to a range of services and situations.

The process of arriving at such an instrument, of course, was not necessarily quite as simple, the policy climate continually shifting and the resulting documents ranging in length and detail.

With the support of international students and representative organisations, however, the Commission has created a set of broad and straightforward Principles that, as the culmination of one set of conversations, we hope will also spark many more.

For that is the most important function of the Principles we launch today – to create discussion and awareness where sometimes it does not exist. This awareness is essential, whether in terms of the obligations of organisations working with international students; or of the support students should expect during their time here. As we discovered during the course of our consultations, the latter is particularly important, with many students not knowing where to seek help or what their entitlements might be.

The Principles therefore fill a gap in the current environment. They encourage collaboration, inform the development of policies and services and act as a guide both to individual students and student organisations. In short, they offer a foundation on which the international student experience can be based – not just for the benefit of the students themselves, but for the benefit of all Australians.

This being said, of course, these Principles are not exhaustive. They do not address every concern faced by international students, the very real issue of prohibitive fees charged for dependents to attend government schools, for example, remaining an ongoing challenge.[4] What these Principles do, however, is represent some of the primary concerns identified by international students and their representative bodies, as well as other relevant stakeholders.

The need for improving the recognition of students’ rights has also been recognised at the international level. Only last month, the International Student Mobility Charter was adopted at the European Association for International Education Conference. This Charter, developed by the European Association for International Education in partnership with other like-minded organisations, has the overall objective of keeping students safe and protected during their time studying overseas. And it covers concerns such as the need to secure international students’ rights and welfare, the importance of inter-cultural competence and the importance of information on studying and living in host countries being open and easily accessible.[5]

What, then, would adoption of these Principles look like in everyday life? It would mean those who work with international students providing accurate and accessible information about rights and responsibilities. It would mean better equipping students to make complaints about potential violations of these rights; it would mean better research and data collection. It would mean increased cultural competency and proficiency.

It would mean relevant organisations ensuring that students and their families have access to affordable medical treatment. It would mean the pursuit of safe and affordable accommodation and transport. It would mean greater international student participation in the life of the community.

We do not need to imagine this, of course, as good practice in this area already exists. The Brisbane Student Ambassador Program, for example, empowers over 20 international students to become advocates for the city, sharing their first-hand experiences in a variety of ways, including through social media.

Meanwhile, the Insider Guides – International Student Guides currently cover Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth and provide information on finding a job or home, transport, budgeting, health services, shopping, eating out and local activities. They also feature a list of useful contacts and are complemented by a free smart phone app.

It is, in a way, very simple to translate the recognition of rights into reality.

Guided by these Principles, many steps can be taken by governments and educational organisations to ensure that the experience of students from overseas is one which holds a mirror to the best of this nation.

The Commission will continue to promote the implementation of the Principles and will look to reviewing their implementation in a year’s time.

I have mentioned that international students face discrimination, and the discrimination they experience can be based on a number of factors, including race. Racism exists in Australia. I’m leading a Partnership that launched and is now implementing a National Anti-Racism Strategy. Many of you may have heard about this Strategy, which will be rolled out over the next three years, and includes the campaign, ‘Racism. It stops with me.’

The Strategy and the campaign recognise that we all, individuals and organisations, have a role in addressing racism. I encourage all of you here to consider how you might be involved in this important initiative, to address a serious issue that many international students, as well as other Australians, face. To find out how you can endorse the Strategy, I encourage you to look at the Strategy’s website:


These Principles are the broad brush – they paint the picture, they set the scene, they focus our gaze on what is and should be possible. It is my pleasure to launch them today, and our hope is that they bring focus and momentum to existing initiatives, as well as fuelling student confidence to advocate for better recognition and protection of their rights.

We have the policy infrastructure, we have the expertise. We have a wide range of active representative bodies, and governments and education providers at all levels determined to do more.

I urge each and every one, then, to look at these Principles, to examine what they might do differently, what questions they might ask, what conversations they might start. Together, we can offer a safe, positive and productive educational experience to all those who seek it – one which every student and their family, whatever their origin, is entitled to expect.


[1] Australian Education International, International Student Survey 2010 Overview Report (2010). At (viewed 19 July 2012).
[2] S Marginson, C Nyland, E Sawir, H Forbes-Mewett, International Student Security (2010), p 54.
[3] Above, p 170.
[4] See Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, In the best interests of the child?: Costs of primary education for dependents of international students and other visa holders in Victoria (2012). At (viewed 14 September 2012).
[5] See European Association for International Education ‘EAIE pioneers a global charter for students’ rights’ (2012). At (viewed 2 October 2012).