Almost nine out of 10 international students studying in Sydney would recommend the city to their friends as a place to live and study, despite persistent complaints about the high cost of public transport and accommodation, according to the first major research done on the experiences of international students in Australia.
Sydney attracts more of Australia’s $20 billion international student market than any other city, with about 50,000 enrolled at university and another 50,000 at vocational and English-language institutions in the city last year, according to federal data.
The size of the international student community in the city, and their ability to promote Sydney around the world, drove the City of Sydney to commission UTS to undertake the research.
“International students make a real contribution to Sydney’s prosperity, they add so much to our cultural life and down the track help to connect our city back to their homes around the globe,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said.
“When students go home, we hope they will talk about their time here, encouraging their peers to follow in their footsteps. Some may even return with families to take up key roles as their careers develop. It all adds to Sydney’s standing as a global city that attracts and retains talent.”
While Sydney was generally seen as a desirable and safe location to study in, a minority of students surveyed reported exploitation by employers and landlords, discrimination and isolation.
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Chinese student Jing Su has enjoyed her time in Sydney despite the cost of living. Photo: James Brickwood
Two students described how “international students don’t get treated in the same way as local students do”.
Concerns have been raised in the past – including by vice-chancellors – that international students are treated like cash cows by the Australian government and universities.
But if they agreed, respondents to the survey seemed mostly too polite to say so.
UNSW postgraduate student Jing Su, 28, from Quanzhou in south-east China, first saw Sydney in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games.
“I always wanted to go to the US but I have two friends who have done their education here and gone back to China, and when I asked their advice, they said:’You should go to Sydney, it’s actually a great place for us’. And I always liked the beach and sunlight.”
Ms Su said she had found it relatively easy to find accommodation – a homestay arrangement with a family in Clovelly, who she is teaching Mandarin – and casual work during her university holidays, but that costs were high.
“The tuition fees are way expensive for international students,” she said. “We pay several times more than the locals, plus we have to find our accommodation and travel costs. It’s quite expensive.”
Breaking down barriers between different cultural groups was also difficult.
“[For] a lot of my friends it’s a little bit hard for them,” she said. “I don’t know why. When we walk into the classroom they automatically sit in their group. Back in China we’re not used to how if you have a question you just raise up your hand, we think that’s interrupting the teacher. But this is changing a lot as well from my generation.”
Linus Faustin is a 22-year-old UTS communications student from Tanzania, who has been in Australia since 2015.
“Finding work is a challenge,” he said, not least because there is “discrimination against international students”.
He said it was unfair that international students do not get the same public transport concessions as locals. “It’s about time for equal fares. International students already pay so much to be able to study full-time,” he said.
Mr Faustin said experiencing racism on public transport was common, but it is not just international students who are victims.
The UTS research was based on online surveys and interviews conducted in mid-2016.
Eighty per cent of respondents enjoyed studying in Sydney, 88 per cent of students said they would recommend Sydney as a place to study, 66 per cent of students had completed paid work, with 82 per cent of those saying they were treated fairly at work and 55 per cent said they received help finding a place to live when they arrived in Sydney.
Major concerns before arrival were the cost of living, finding a job and being able to speak English, but these concerns diminished during their stay.
Sydney’s universities have benefited enormously from the international student boom during the last decade, reaping fees of up to four times what local students pay to attend the same course.
In October 2016, the most recent figures available, Australia had 683,000 international student enrolments, with the largest share – 256,875 – in NSW. The majority of these – 72,429 – were from China, followed by India, Thailand, Brazil and Indonesia.