Learning from the past: An international student in Australia in 1976

The disruption we now face during the COVID-19 pandemic provides us an opportunity to reflect on the history of international education in Australia—to stand back and take a broader view and to take stock of any lessons that the past may have for us as we find ways to confront the challenges that face our sector.


International education in Australia has a long history and has long been intertwined with our public diplomacy program in the Asia Pacific. It has transformed from a relationship of aid to a relationship of trade. 

While many in the higher education sector use the Colombo Plan to demonstrate the history and contribution of international education, we don’t often hear about the rise of privately-funded students during the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, as Asian economies were growing steadily, many young people—particularly from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia—came to Australia to study in our secondary schools and universities. These students quite often went on to become migrants. Our migration policy during these Whitlam years increasingly favoured skilled and professional migrants and our schools and universities became integral to creating pipelines of this new skilled migrant workforce. One estimate is that 75% of private international students in the 1970s were granted permanent residence.


We spoke to one of these international students who arrived in Australia in 1976 from Hong Kong. Max Tam arrived in Melbourne as a schoolboy and would go on to study at a Melbourne university and live and work as a dentist before his recent retirement. At the time Max arrived in Australia, the government had abolished university fees. International students were able to arrive without a government scholarship and this saw a period of rapid growth in the sector. The government eventually placed a ceiling of 10,000 on the number of overseas students in universities and, in a sign of things to come, dropped any justification that that the private program was part of Australia’s aid and development priorities. 


Max’s international student experience was indeed a different time—but his experiences shed light on what worked for him and what didn’t—and provides some direction about how we can choose to recover from the current crisis.


When Max arrived as a school student he had never travelled internationally before. He was on his own. He counts the friendliness of people he met in the community and at his school as absolutely key to his getting started.


“There were a few very, very helpful Australians at the time that helped set a very solid foundation from that point on. From that first evening I spent some time sleeping on a couch in a flat. It was owned by an Aussie and he was the nicest person that you will ever meet. He gave me some tips on how we do things in Australia.”

After a few days sleeping on the couch, Max was given the address of an office downtown where he was provided an address of a place he could stay. Max’s “land-lady” was the precursor to today’s home-stay arrangements. 


“She had a house and she rented a room out to me. Not only was I staying there, she helped me with my daily chores such as cleaning. It made my life as a student so much easier. I could actually focus on starting a new life. Her son and daughter-in-law helped me understand how Australians lived. They pointed me to where to do the shopping and taught me about things like thanking tram drivers and signs of courtesy that are different in Hong Kong. That was a very big eye opener for me.”

Max’s positive experience with education in Australia was informed by the kindness of people in his community and help he received with day-to-day life by people that he met. Australia was a very different world for him and learning these every day, common-place differences was only possible via genuine and personal engagement with others. “Straight away you could feel the

people are generally very, very nice but the way they do things—the culture—is very, very different. So I started paying a bit more attention on how things are done here. It’s not about being right or wrong, it’s just different.”


 At public school in Melbourne, Max had a fantastic experience with a small group of other international students. He refers to his teachers as “top-quality human beings, not just educators” and says they played an enormous role in easing the stress of adjusting to life in a different country. Within the first few weeks, a teacher organised a backyard barbecue for all the international students to attend in his own home. 


“He introduced his whole family to us. That was one of those things I never expected would happen. Where I come from, teachers and students never mingle. But here, you get the concept that the teachers, the lecturers, really want to help you—not only to learn but to learn the ways to make a living afterwards.”

At university, Max found this personal touch was not so obvious. The times when he genuinely enjoyed his experience were times when he felt others—whether academics, university staff and other students—were genuinely curious about him and his background.


Max has recently returned to university to study for a Master of Marketing and a Graduate Diploma in Statistics. Now a mature-age Australian student he has a different lens on the student experience. What struck him in returning to university in a different era, is that there seems to be a lack of this personal interest and understanding of the backgrounds of international students.


“Being an international student, you feel that you are basically at the bottom of the pile. It seems to me that universities are maybe not doing their best to really get to know international students. A little bit of background in marketing helps me realise how important this is—you need to understand your customers. I’m not saying universities are like businesses—they should be better than that—but at the same time, I don’t think they focus enough on who the students are and what they want to achieve out of staying here and spending time here.” 


International students can indeed feel that they are at “the bottom of the pile”. Encouraging international students to build confidence in speaking about their cultures, backgrounds and ambitions can go some way to bridging this perceived gap in acceptance. 


Max’s story is a reminder that there is work that can be done by universities to find ways to get to know their international students. What motivates them? What do they want from their time in Australia? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they find challenging in their lives in Australia? Such insight can provide a starting point for building a strategy to truly engage with your international students, improve their experience and target services and courses around genuine need.


The relationship between international students, universities and communities continues to evolve. The journey from positioning international education as ‘aid’ to one of ‘trade’ has perhaps changed the student experience and student expectations. During Max’s time as a student in the 1970s he built a real fascination and a love of Australia and its people. He says:


“I think it would be a completely lost opportunity if we don’t pay enough attention to the students that are here, to the students that have been through a lot of hardship to come here. It would not be fair on us, ourselves, to not help our students to become ambassadors for Australia.”

The risk is great. Poor student experience and engagement leads to negative reviews and reputation for institutions and for Australia. Fortunately, the first step to approaching this is relatively simple—gaining qualitative insight into the needs, aspirations and challenges of our international student cohort. 


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The Lygon Group’s Qualitative Student Insight can assist your institution to build a well-rounded understanding of your international students. 

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