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International study, mental health, and migration in Australia

25 January, 2008

I’ve been very quiet of late as I’ve been on holidays after submitting my thesis in December.  I decided to give myself a break from all thinking for that period, which has been blissful.  I’m now back in the department and will start posting to CM again.  First off, an article in the Herald I noticed today which provides a commentary on the experience of many international students who come to Australia to feed its $11.3 billion “export industry”, the country’s fourth largest.  Although the view from the USA and elsewhere in “the West” might be that study in Australia provides a “beaches and beer” holiday, many poor students from Bangladesh, India and China are intent on gaining permanent residency.  The article’s author Tanveer Ahmed, a psychiatrist, writes about one of the less obvious dimensions of this “industry” the consequences the mental health of students who are often betting their family’s wealth on gaining PR:

Some universities have been the target of allegations that their degrees are little more than extended migration schemes, with the qualifications useful for only the points on the residency application but almost worthless in the employment marketplace.

But what is less commented upon is that overseas students are fast becoming one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. Working in mental health, I see more and more each month and their situations are often horrendous. Suicide attempts, self harm or drug overdoses are the most common way they present, usually in relation to financial and study pressures. It is complicated further by language and cultural difficulties and lack of adequate health insurance.

A 2004 study by the University of Queensland found their international students were three times more likely to suffer depression than local students through the course of their study.

Only this month a house fire in suburban Melbourne killed three Indian students. It emerged that they were sharing the one room in bunk beds and would sleep in shifts while the others were working part time jobs. Overcrowding and difficult living conditions may have contributed to the accident.

Overseas students are the new refugees, living on the edges of Australian society under the weight of visa difficulties, imminent deportation and reduced access to social services. They inhabit that ill defined landscape of unbelonging.

A psychiatrist’s perspective is welcome here.  I have also thought that the “international student experience” is something worthy of ethnographic study.  For an enormous “industry” the social dimension of international studentdom in Australia is poorly understood.  It’s perhaps not surprising that universities aren’t all that interested in knowing too much about this subject as it might raise uncomfortable questions about the largely financial, rather than academic, motivations which are driving ever increasing international student numbers.  In my opinion, it is also something of an open secret in the university “industry” that migration, rather than education, is the primary reason for many international students coming to Australia.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 January, 2008 1:47 pm

    One of my MAA students in last year’s ethnographic methods class, Anupom Roy, did a really interesting original study of cigarette smoking on the Macquarie University campus. One of the things he found was the relatively high number of informants who reported starting to smoke (or resuming after previously quitting) after arriving here, both to cope with stress (particularly around exam time) and as a way of meeting other students and fitting in. The majority of the students he spoke with were international students, many Chinese. But it wasn’t until I read this post of yours, Jovan, that I grasped just what sort of pressures and stress they might be dealing with — the kind of stuff you are talking about goes far beyond the normal stresses of exam time.

  2. 25 January, 2008 2:35 pm

    This conversation has reminded me of another case that occurred a couple of years ago at Monash University in Melbourne. A Chinese student “went postal” in a classroom, shooting several people, if I remember correctly, with a pistol he’d obtained. I don’t remember if anyone was killed. In the news reports at the time there was mention of his language difficulties and the frustration he experienced trying to communicate with other students and teachers. I also seem to remember that pressure from his family to succeed was cited as another contributing factor.

  3. nick permalink
    26 January, 2008 4:47 pm

    Whilst working as an EFL English teacher at a language institute in Sydney, I was able to witness firsthand some of the stresses and pressures overseas students face in their quests to study at Australain universities. The course I taught was an academic English program that was initially designed to prepare students for life at an English speaking university. However, successful completion of the course also enabled students to gain ‘direct entry’ into some Australian universities (MQ, Curtin, UWS…).

    At the start of every course when I was faced with a new group of prospective uni hopefuls, mostly from China, India, Thailand and Korea, I took the opportunity to ask what they wanted to study, at which university they planned to do it, and why they chose Australia. From time to time I was given some interesting answers to my inquiries, the most memorable being the story of a Chinese man who was about begin a very stressful five year journey. Apparently, his family had invested all their savings on sending him to Australia where he was to first get a master degree, then obtain permanent residency, before finally getting a job that would give him enough money for his family to emigrate to Australia. The entire plan depended on a strict time frame and tight financial budget that allowed no room for error. Where this story was probably not unique, this young man was the only student I met who openly expressed his intention to staff and students alike.

    But it was when students failed the course that the extent of the external pressures they were under became a little bit clearer. It was not uncommon for me to be offered bribes or sworn at in the hope that I would change the grades and pass these individuals. Usually through a flurry of tears, many would explain that their families had wagered everything – time, money and family reputation – on the child’s success and that they faced dire consequences if they had to return home early.

    I could go on with many more stories that illustrate the difficulties overseas students face when studying in Australia, but I won’t. When these contributing factors are combined with the everyday problems of living in a foreign country, not to mention the stress of an university workload, it comes as little surprise to read that the health of overseas students, as well as the academic grades, are beginning to pay the price.

  4. 11 February, 2008 5:10 pm

    Good info. and reading. I would definitely bookmark you to check for new updates.

  5. 1 March, 2008 3:17 pm

    My husband, daughter and I sold our house in the UK and came over here. We have enough money to survive and at least go out for dinner once in a while. I had a little present (new baby) last year whilst doing my hairdressing course. Although some of my classmates and teachers probably thought I would go back to the UK we did not, because plan to apply for residency. This is a beautiful country and I want my children to have the opportunity to experience a better lifestyle. Anyway immigration department would not give me any exceptions for being off school. We had worked so hard to come this far. I kept my attendance up virtually 90%. And as luck would have it she was due in the holidays. My doctor recommended that I take off at 32 weeks, but because of immigration and my student visa which states I am not allowed to be out of school for more than 20 % I stayed at school until 39 weeks. I approach them 3 times to clarify and everytime I got the same answer. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my live. (I had gestational diabetes, very low iron count and I was exhuasted) The following week I had my baby via C-Section because of complications. 5 weeks later I was back at school doing light duties. They were gracious enough not to give me any clients. My daughter had slight facial palsy which I sometimes blame myself for, otherwise she is normal and happy little thing. My husband look after our kids while I am at college. Needless to say I did have postnatal depression and had to seek help, while at college. I had to fight to get an extension on my studies(just 3 months) since they wanted me to finish within the original time frame even after I explained my situation to them. It was only after I went to see the college counsellor that she took my case up that they were happy to extend my course.

    I had to study the second part of my course somewhere else because the place I studied at could not accommodate me any further. I am actually pleased I have made the change but the extra months means it is money we have not planned for and therefore things are tight. I think we will sell the car the next and downgrade to a smaller car. Our savings will pretty much almost be gone. I find employment here extremely biased and unreasonable. Not many people will employ you for 20 hours a week. They need a little bit more than that. Most of my asian friends work terrible shifts everyday and get paid next to nothing. I once heard one of them say. I don’t work, I don’t eat. They have it extremely tuff although I think it was tuff and still is tuff.

    I think this has been hard on my relationship with my husband although we realise this is circumstance we find ourselves in. We see the bigger picture. We truly want to stay here. Although we have Medibank and they have been fantastic I have a doctor who refuses to take my money, because he knows our situation. According to him, he has enough money and we need ours. That does restore your faith in humanity. How we go over the next five months is a mystery to me.

    They recently changed the point system so we are now forced to go on a graduate visa. And our life will be on hold another year. At least we will be able to work fulltime and not worry about money.

    One of my friends had to go back to the uk, because her and her family did not have enough money left. We are lucky. The money from our house ran out long ago it was through some money my husband got left by his grandma that we are able to do this.

    It would be nice if the plight of stress we have to deal with is looked at. Extending working hours by just 1 hour would give international students a chance of making it and not being exploited.

    This is our choice, it is an expensive gamble financially, health and relationship wise.
    The end result will be worth it.


  6. 26 June, 2008 10:38 pm

    Well I think it is really a difficult situation they’ve been getting to. First is that they’re language. second is their families, and third, I would say culture. It is hard to adopt easily on a different culture.

  7. rohanimb permalink
    22 August, 2008 2:57 pm

    Hi Study in Australia,

    What do u mean by different culture ?? All Indians are aware of western culture. Culture is minor factor here. The major factor is Australian Government just need money from International student but nothing else !! Australia is not providing any service to international students. At least scholarships, travel concession, medical concession, job placements..nothing more over it is purposely restricting all companies to not to employ international graduates who just finished their studies.

    But there are many jobs for local graduates..


  1. ‘Exploitation’ of foreign students « Culture Matters

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