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Up in the air: The importance of language for international education's recovery

Published 13 December 2021

Last month, the Australian federal government announced that international students and skilled workers would be able to return from 1st December. The news was a dose of much-needed hope for the more than 156,000 international student visa holders who remain outside Australia.

Just two weeks later, in response to the rise of the Omicron variant, the border reopening was delayed, provisionally until the 15th December.

The shine from the initial announcement was dulled and quickly reverted to negativity and a lack of trust from international students who have been waiting and planning their return.

In this TLG Recovery Insights report, we highlight the ways that some of the language being used to communicate with students during this time of uncertainty is having unintended consequences.

The Social Source: TLG’s Social Media Insights Platform

Throughout the pandemic TLG has been monitoring how international students are responding to Australian policy decisions and the COVID-19 response. Our Social Media Insights platform - The Social Source - combines TLG’s deep understanding of international education and the student experience with social media insights to provide up-to-date meaningful analysis of genuine student conversations and interactions.

The Social Source allows TLG to provide our clients with rapid insight to events happening right now. When the border opening was delayed we quickly became aware of a shift of sentiment towards Australia and a concerning shift in the domestic Australian population regarding international students.

Controlling what we can

The timing of border openings and closings during a pandemic is clearly beyond the remit of the international education sector. However, we do have some control over the way that this is communicated and in understanding the impact of such decisions on student lives.

Identifying negative reactions to well-intended language can go some way to helping the sector provide reassurance to students as they plan to arrive in Australia while building acceptance of international students in Australia.

“When it is safe to do so”

Throughout the pandemic, international students have been reacting negatively to the notion that they will be allowed back in ‘when it is safe to do so’. While the phrase may be intended to be reassuring to both students and the Australian community, it has had the opposite reaction. Students feel the phrase positions them as a threat to the health and safety of Australians and a hindrance to Australia’s public health agenda. For example:

The phrase ‘when it is safe to do so’ has increasingly fueled this negative sentiment throughout the pandemic and has contributed to a sense of Australia being unwelcoming.

This narrative reinforces doubts in some sections of the Australian public that allowing international students into the country is dangerous and, if not timed accurately, could risk increased COVID cases in Australia. This is particularly pertinent if international students are arriving prior to the easing of inter-state travel restrictions.

Australian social media reactions to the arrival of 250 students under the NSW Pilot Program on the 6th December provides examples of this perceived correlation between international students and public health risk:

The phrase ‘when it is safe to do so’ is clearly intended to provide reassurance to both students and the Australian community. However, in actuality it is drawing a link between the arrival of international students and the health and safety of Australians. This is negatively impacting the way that international students are seeing Australia as a welcoming place. It also adds fuel to negative sentiment towards international students in some sections of Australian society.

“Border pause”

In announcements about the delayed reopening, there has been a lack of consideration of the implications on the lives of international students and temporary visa holders.

International students who have been stuck offshore for the last two years celebrated the news that the borders would open to them without exemptions from the 1st December. Many quickly quit their jobs, bought tickets, took a PCR test, packed bags, terminated leases and said farewells to family and friends. Some began the journey, travelling to cities and regions closer to their departure point.

When the announcement came two weeks later that the border reopening would be “paused”, this had a devastating impact on these students' lives.

International students can’t ‘pause’ time. Stopping and starting simply isn’t possible for many who are navigating all the moving pieces that go into travelling for an extended period of time to another country. Many of these pieces simply can’t be put on hold.

Students reacted to the border “pause” with emotion, frustration and embarrassment:

Students are now in a new layer of limbo – one where they lack whatever security and stability they had during the previous two years. Mobility isn’t something that can be suddenly ‘stopped’ once it starts – there is planning and preparation that goes into staying still.

“Hang in there”

Messages that use the phrase ‘hang in there’, while well-meaning, are being misinterpreted and lost in translation:

First, the phrase seems flippant about the genuine difficulties students are experiencing and disregards the financial and social impact of the long-term border closure and the recent ‘pause’.

Second, using colloquial and casual phraseology at this moment risks alienating students who may not comprehend how ‘to hang’ can hold a positive sentiment, particularly during a time with reports of increased mental health problems among international students.

Building trust through language

As Australia continues to plan for international students to return, we can not be too careful with the words we are choosing to express our welcome and our empathy. Right now is the time to be delicate with language and student-centric in how we ensure that students and their families feel not only safe on arrival, but welcomed by institutions and communities.

The clients of The Social Source understand this and have made amazing adjustments to language and messaging over the course of 2021, to ensure what they need to communicate is landing well with the international students they serve. We’re so proud of what they’ve achieved.

Get in touch to learn more.


Angela Lehmann, Head of Research


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