International study, mental health, and migration in Australia
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.