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Panel: International Education and Human Rights (2011)

Race Race Discrimination

Panel: International Education and Human Rights

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Helen Szoke

Australian International Education Conference

Wednesday 12th October 2011

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, both past and present.

I am delighted to be here today in my capacity as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, a role I commenced only last month, following Mr Graeme Innes AM, who held this role jointly with his responsibilities as Disability Discrimination Commissioner.  I would like to acknowledge the work of my colleague Graeme, who played such an important role in ensuring that human rights and in particular racial equality are part of the national dialogue on international student safety and well-being. I'm looking forward to the Australian Human Rights Commission having an ongoing role in that national dialogue.  

As some of you may know, I was heavily involved in this area of work in my former capacity as the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner.  

During my time as Commissioner I met regularly with international students and their representatives. Far too often, their stories focused on being taken advantage of – or being discriminated against – by health providers, migration agents, employers and real estate agents because of their race or colour or their ethnicity, their sex or their age, and sometimes because of a combination of these factors.

I got a clear sense that many international students did not understand what their human rights were and how they were protected under Australian law. In most cases international students were not aware that they could take action, or were afraid to take action because of fears about their visa status. Some thought they could not do anything because they were not a citizen.

In the wake of the violent attacks on Indian international students in Melbourne in 2009, the Victorian Commission joined with the Victorian Government, Victorian Police, universities and student groups, to bring about some positive change. For example, the Commission provided training and information about students’ rights under equal opportunity and human rights legislation to the International Student Care Service – which delivers international student welfare services; and to international student representatives and education providers. We also worked closely with Victorian Police on their Prejudice Motivated Crime Strategy.

There is no doubt in my mind that these attacks undermined both Victoria’s and Australia’s reputation as a safe and welcoming place for international students. There has been a tendency to consider international student safety as a ‘Melbourne problem’.  Although this is a distorted view, it is a notion that has been supported by media reporting, and more generally by the perception of a higher proportion of Indian international students studying in Melbourne.  It is a distorted view because issues relating to international student safety and well-being are not limited to Melbourne. In fact, according to Australia Education International, in August 2011 there were more than 186,000 international students enrolled in all sectors in NSW, compared to around 148,000 enrolled in all sectors in Victoria.[1] Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the string of violent attacks in Melbourne against Indian students, and the initial lack of recognition of the discriminatory aspects of this, left a large problem to be addressed.

Clearly, the challenges associated with ensuring international student safety and well-being are not confined to Melbourne. In fact, the Commission is about to contribute a submission to a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into international student accommodation in NSW. The inquiry has been prompted by concerns in NSW regarding the availability and standards of accommodation for students, and the adequacy of regulation of that accommodation, particularly for international students.

There is no doubt that the Australian Government has a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of international students in their capacity as temporary residents and as temporary migrant workers. But ensuring international student safety and well-being is a national concern, where the active engagement and cooperation between the Australian and State and Territory Governments, and between education providers, employers, and service providers is required.  

In this context the Commission particularly welcomed the development by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) of the International Student Strategy for Australia 2010-2014.[2] The Strategy – developed collaboratively by the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments through COAG – recognised not only that Australia benefits socially, culturally, diplomatically and economically from international students who choose to study here, but also explicitly acknowledged that all governments are responsible for aspects of the international student experience.

While there are a number of positive measures in the Strategy there is still a long way to go. Issues like transport concessions, access to affordable and safe housing, and a commitment to gathering ongoing data about international student safety in Australia, remain. Of course, some of these issues are the responsibility of the State Governments and some of the Australian Government. What is important is that this split of responsibilities is not used as an excuse for inaction.

In this environment, the Australian Human Rights Commission in the past 18 months, has been developing the Minimum Standards for International Student Safety and Well Being – in close consultation with international students; with stakeholders including Universities Australia, the National Union of Students, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, the Council of International Students Australia and international student service providers; and with input from decision makers and regulators.

Underpinning the DRAFT Minimum Standards are the principles of non-discrimination in relation to the rights of domestic and international students and equality between domestic and international students in Australia.

The DRAFT Minimum Standards set out the core human rights of international students studying in Australia and the minimum responsibilities of Government and private education providers in order to provide for these rights.  

The DRAFT Minimum Standards are based on international human rights standards including: the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  They also consider relevant, existing domestic legislation.  

We have focused on thematic areas that international students themselves have prioritised including education, health and safety, accommodation, employment, transport, immigration and information.

Since commencing as Race Discrimination Commission I have been regularly asked how the Minimum Standards are progressing – the truth is that this is such a fluid policy area and with each new development we have had to go back and look again at our draft!

There has in recent years been a serious commitment and investment in improving and simplifying access to international education in Australia. In addition to COAG’s International Student Strategy, we’ve had the Baird review,[3] subsequent changes around the Education Services to Overseas Students (ESOS) framework, and most recently the Government’s response to the Knight review.[4]   I commend much of this work.      

So in light of some of these positive developments do we actually still require a set of Minimum Standards?  The answer is yes based on two reasons.  

First, because this work fills gaps in the current policy environment – it provides us with a safety net, with minimum standards, in a complex and shifting political, social and economic climate.  It is a document that sets out a clear and objective duty of care, which is important in our complex federal system – where responsibilities can sometimes be easily lost.

And second, the Minimum Standards is worth pursuing because most of the international students that the Commission has had contact with over the past two years have supported this idea as a meaningful way forward.  Existing literature also suggests that this approach could provide a useful way to address some of the challenges faced by international students in Australia today.  

The Australian Human Rights Commission is particularly well placed to lead this work. As an independent agency with a unique role in Australia as a national human rights institution, our strength lies in bringing various stakeholders together to share their views and to progress important conversations. 

This is the approach that we have adopted in our work on international student safety.  We have aimed to ensure that the DRAFT Minimum Standards document practically reflects international human rights standards and reasonably reflects the views of multiple stakeholders.  This means striking a careful balance, being mindful about what is achievable and viable, so that document remains relevant and useful.

There is no doubt that there is more refining to do on the document, in close consultation with all stakeholders.      

Unfortunately one of the realities of working in human rights is that we have more questions than we do solutions. The Commission has experienced a number of challenges in progressing this work and we will need ongoing input from many of the people in this room.  

As we have moved towards advanced drafts of the Minimum Standards document we are still asking a number of practical questions including:

  • Who will monitor the standards?  I mention this noting that the Commission isn’t necessarily resourced to do this in our future work.
  • How do we encourage compliance with the Standards?
  • Who will update the Standards over time to reflect significant changes to the international student population or developments within the sector?

I don’t need to tell people in this room that international education is a complex and fast shifting area of policy. International education is a big picture and we need a wide angle lens.  The Australian Government, State and Territory governments, decision makers, regulators, education providers, service providers, students and the parents and families of students – we are all in this together.

[1] Australia Education International, 2011 pivot tables – Basic Pivot Table 2011, (accessed 7 October 2011).

[2] Council of Australian Governments (COAG), International Student Strategy for Australia 2010-2014, (accessed 7 October 2011).

[3] Bruce Baird, Stronger, simpler, smarter ESOS: supporting international students: see Baird Review of the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act 2000, (accessed 7 October 2011).
[4] See Government Response to the Knight Review of the Student Visa Program, (accessed 7 October 2011).