This is a summary paper and revised version of a presentation to the ISANA VicTas State Conference,
Melbourne, 9 September 2016*
An international student recently observed that, ‘We bring the world to Melbourne’, to describe her contribution (and that of her peers) to the city. On the face of it, bringing the world to Melbourne seems to be a simple idea of incoming diversity, in a city well used to such incomings. It supports perceptions of international students about their connections to the ‘most liveable city in the world’, their contributions to the character, youth and culture of place. It is an idea about social change, but it is not simple. In this paper, I reflect on recent research findings in relation to the interactions between international students and the city. [i] These include observations and memories of place, as well as interactions and engagement.
Melbourne’s ‘liveability’[ii] ranking presents the city as an entity with desirable—and marketable—social, educational cultural and environmental factors. The city is not in a fixed state, however. Population, infrastructure and diversity change over time. The history of place and human memory have a part in this. The idea of city is also unfixed; ‘incomplete with no centre, no fixed parts with often disjointed processes.’[iii] It is deconstructed, says Ien Ang, ‘by those groups who used to be marginalised within its borders but are now bursting out of them…’[iv] It follows that the experience of liveability is uneven across the population; the measure is always relative. In international student experiences, the marginalised-integrated, mobile-located binaries are also relative.
Such a view of city space in continual flux provided a context for this study of international students, their local and global mobility, their sense of place and their transnational connections. It also presented a challenge to represent the city in relationship with its people, a social rather than an instrumentalist perspective. This was particularly evident in the agency of international students, for example in community building, advocacy and activism in the events illustrated below.
In this study, evidence showed how transnationalism—manifested in connections, relationships, social practices, technological communication, local and global networks that operate across national borders—is common in international student experience.[v] Students are operating transnationally in a number of ways, for example through reference to student groups in their countries of origin, ‘internet activism’[vi] and through such e-commerce activities as selling Ugg boots, baby formula and other goods to China. While the term is not commonly used in international education discourse, transnationalism in practice was actually very well understood and articulated in stories of personal journeys, the connections between “home” (as a shifting signifier) and Melbourne, the ties that bind students to either or both.
The experience of place—the city in the lives of individuals—was evident in the way the student participants imagined the city, used technology and communication networks in their social and political activities, their expressions of multiple identities and their use of location. In this conceptualisation, the city context is fundamental to the international student population and to the study of international education. These are actors, the agents in the city’s development. In the process, demographic impacts are documented, businesses respond, policy develops and places change.
The contribution, or impact, of international students in such a framework goes well beyond economic benefits or the commercialisation and promotion of liveability to which we have become accustomed. Rather, positioning international students in the city context invites our gaze on interactions and the making of place. This proposition balances the realities of the ‘managed’ city with the human scale¾Ang’s continuous deconstruction. It focuses on aspirations, on the agency of international students, their representative associations and on the key facilitators of activities such as welcome and leadership programs. Notable here are the developments initiated by the City of Melbourne in recent years, responding to the multiple elements we see in international student lives.
A challenge in linking the experiences of international students and the making of place is related to how we understand how context interacts with multifaceted stories, the dimensions of belonging and temporariness; the changes we see in people and place. Individual perceptions are important to this understanding. For example, one student participant who referred to the geometric glazed walls of Federation Square reflected:
“I really like this place. You can come here and be the only one, or you can be here with many people, groups going on tours and school children. I like the walls. International students have to find their place and when you are alone it’s nice to have a comfortable place…Sometimes we live inside the walls.”
Place, space, time, identity and local knowledge interact here to generate a sense of being in a neighbourhood. The perception is subjective yet connected to the meanings that are collectively attributed to space. International student networks and formal associations[vii] are made from the complex relationships that students create for themselves and among themselves, with institutions, with city-based services and amenities, with the spaces in which they meet, and the uses they create for the city environment. Cafes become meeting rooms, the streets are sites for networks and for many international students, Melbourne is the gathering place for the world. These are the connections formed with place, between boundaries and across borders.
From the evidence gathered in this study, I suggest the typical focus on the economic contribution of international students under-recognises the social influences, the transnational practices, the agency and the aspirations for social change that come with international students to cities like Melbourne. The related literature often undervalues their experiences of being and belonging, their imaginative and practical approaches to engagement. The focus on international student experience can, and should, shift to a more contextualized view to acknowledge city policy and broader discourses about urban development. [viii]
The world with which we engage is made richer and enables our understanding through the relationships we have with these students. Their experience is more than the sum of components we label as ‘the student experience’ because of the contextual relationship with the city, itself changed by their presence. When we travel and when we interact with travellers, we connect with the world. International students, in bringing the world to Melbourne, offer us opportunities to do this. In such an environment, cities change, and so do we.
[i] The focus of this Doctoral research was how space and people interact, and the ways international students imagine the city, engage socially in its making and the transformative dimensions of the city over time, specifically in the decade between 2000 and 2010. The contributions of international students to the city were recorded and described through interviews, focus groups and research into representative associations.
[ii] The Economist Intelligence Unit produces the annual Global Liveability Ranging Report using a range of criteria to produce its results—calculations of stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.
[iii] Amin, A., & Thrift, N. (2002). Cities: Reimagining the urban. Cambridge: Polity, p.8.
[iv] Ang, I. (2003). Together-in-difference: Beyond diaspora, into hybridity. Asian Studies Review, 27(2), p. 143. Ien Ang is Professor of Cultural Studies at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney.
[v] Recent work on social media, and communications is particularly valuable in an exploration of transnational behaviour, social networking and information gathering. See, for example: Alzougool, B., Chang, S., Gomes, C., & Berry, M. (2013). Finding their way around: International students’ use of information sources. Journal of Advanced Management Science, 1(1), 43-49, and Chang S., Alzougool, B., Berry, M., Gomes, C., & Reeders, D. (2013, 13 August). Mapping the Social Networks of International Students: Foundations for Improving Communication. Final Report. The University of Melbourne.
[vi] Internet activism is becoming a powerful tool for the simultaneous, transnational activism that was seen in the Indian student protests of 2009-2010, and the development of ongoing Malaysian student campaigns such as the Malaysian student Bersih demonstrations in 2011 and Occupy Hong Kong in 2014.
[vii] Several student groups were included in the research, including the following: The Australian Federation of International Students (afis.org.au) was established in Melbourne in 2002 with an explicitly social inclusion agenda, seeking opportunities for international students to be part of Australian community life and to be an independent service to those students. Meld Magazine (meldmagazine.com.au) is published online for and by international students. It reports extensively on international student life in Melbourne and has maintained an extensive searchable archive since 2008. The Council of International Students Australia (cisa.edu.au) is the national peak body representing international students, formed in 2010.
[viii] There remain, of course, the concerns we have had for a long time about the adaptation, integration, and exploitation of international students as cultural others, social groups and workers—the experiences of transient non-citizens with limited rights and status. Those are not the primary concerns of the current study, but should not be dismissed.