Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Social inclusion and integration by Paula Dunstan

Last month, Campus Review (20.01.09) ran two articles relating to the social inclusion and integration of international students: one connected to quality assurance at Adelaide University, and the other a more personal reflection from IEAA president Stephen Connolly. Both perspectives are essential to the discussion about international student experience, from individual experience to systematic programs. It’s an important discussion for students, institutions and communities alike, but the issues are not new. In a successful and still-growing international education sector, a positive international student experience is, and has always been seen by many as both a social good and protection for the reputation and image of Australia as a friendly and welcoming host.

Are social inclusion and integration the same thing, however? As much as we would like to bundle up our buzzwords (student experience is a massively complex thing in itself), it might be wise to differentiate our terms if our efforts are to be effective. In Stephen Connolly’s article, social inclusion is related to personal hosting and welcoming. Face-to-face communication and relatedness through families and communities is often a voluntary, altruistic activity, benefiting some a great deal. Social inclusion often works by accident and goodwill, when some people are in the right place at the right time. It is sustained more by good practice than policy, except perhaps in well-managed home-stay and other programs. Visitors and hosts alike need to work hard if they wish to create socially inclusive spaces.

Integration refers to more formal processes which create environments for students to develop different cultural perspectives, find meaning in otherness, and confidently enter, depart and re-enter facilitated learning spaces. The term has been used, discussed and researched in the institutional context over time, and connects in part with social, psychological and cultural theory. It provides for the personal and academic development of students, and is often supported by policy as a key principle of international education good practice.

In 1987, the first international student adviser was appointed at UNSW, and through the early 1990s most universities invested in student advisers to facilitate social, cultural and academic integration on campuses. We saw the development of specific professional skills and knowledge generation that addressed integration as a development process, as well as a focus for program creation within international offices and other service areas. Integration was not as an attractive a buzzword as internationalisation, but every bit as real and every bit as difficult to achieve.

At the ISANA Conference in 1997, Richard Nowak and Robert Weiland described the importance of social competence as a developmental stage for international students, affected negatively by cultural shock unless universities met their obligations to these students by facilitating targeted programs that lead to ‘affective and relation-centred interaction.’

At the same conference, RMIT’s Professor Desmond Cahill, warned of the unpredictable effects Pauline Hanson could have on “our friendly, multicultural image” and consequently on international student experience. Cahill saw the issues had to do with ethical values, community cohesion and identity, in great danger of being undermined by Hanson and her supporters. Cahill described international student advisors as meeting the need for intercultural interaction and its facilitation, and applauded their understanding of language and culture in the context of international education which remains at all times a form of cross-cultural education.

Hanson was privileged in the media, and the dangerous potential of her views was evident in migrant communities as well as in universities, which were not sufficiently supported by government policy or public indignation. If they were, they might have better counteracted her impact through their contributions to community work and public education. These days, it’s media mischief that seeks to vilify the very institutions and community agencies that are dedicated to inclusive and welcoming practice; this, as Connolly asserts, draws energy away from the real issues.

International education has changed greatly since 1997, when overseas students holding visas in Australia numbered fewer than 150,000, as distinct from over 474,000 in 2008. Sheer numbers as well as cultural diversity and cross-sectoral dimensions provide us with enormous challenges to ensure students feel part of, and work successfully within, their learning communities. The need for professional skills in this area remains as crucial as ever for the success of our international education industry.

In 2009, integration and social inclusion remain a focus for professionals working with international students – the advisors, teachers, and specialised support services. The recent 19th ISANA conference, 'Promoting integration and interaction’ devoted its program over four days to presenting and discussing several outstanding examples of real efforts, real projects, real information, focused research and systematic programs designed for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

Such things are formed by individuals and networks, supported by institutions, and cultivated by professional associations, a large part of whose role it is to generate and promote professional capacity. We hope these efforts are taken seriously and sustained by government. They involve investment in resources, improved knowledge, professional training – and good management. We need debate on international students and their place in our campuses and communities. The issues are more multi-faceted, and more difficult to understand than individual personal experiences, and while personal stories should be encouraged as instructive and uplifting, the tough issues about reason and purpose remain. Friendliness, of course is always important, but on a large scale management strategies need to come to the fore.

The ISANA 1997 conference theme was ‘In it together’. Some things don’t change – whether it’s a single student experience or the collective experience of thousands, ahead is a responsibility for all of us.