Embracing diversity at AIEC 2017

Embracing diversity involves more than labelling difference. It means opening conversations with key players in the international education project, especially with international students.

Every year the Australian International Education Conference brings together delegates from all Australian education sectors. They are international partners, state and federal governments, academics, professional staff, students and media interests. Sometimes re-setting, mostly re-affirming, the state of an industry of significant economic and social importance. The conference frames questions about the industry:  What is it? How big is it? Where is it going? What is our part in it?

This snapshot of AIEC 2017 looks at our part in the industry; the space in which people work, think and imagine the future. In particular, the great debate and several sessions addressing the theme of the conference, Embracing Diversity, illustrate some of the challenges for international education professionals.


The debate on the morning of Thursday 12 October drew a big picture of the global context, exploring the proposition: International education is complicit in the growing sentiments of nationalist populism, as it mostly serves to create a class of global elites. Rather than dwelling on the nature or power of ‘national populism’ the speakers variously demonstrated the way international education is multi-faceted, involves complex political, historical and management issues, is ever-changing and contradictory.

The ‘no’ case included assertions that ‘globalisation is a wonderful thing’ and that Brazilian students in restaurants who ‘smash avocados and crumble feta on our breakfasts’ are not elites. We are reminded that the economic, market driven agenda for Australian international education was chosen at a high level. Implying globalisation is uncomplicated was surely unintended. But framing international students as low-level workers seems to deliberately confirm their status in this agenda. A pity.

Fazal Rizvi’s argument captured beautifully the current state of Australian international education: ‘We have located international education in market logic, in a market civilisation,’ he argued. The evidence is in the reiterated objective of economic gain by industry leaders, and in the large proportion of students now undertaking business, economics and commerce courses; students perhaps more focussed on the global than on their responsibilities for their local, home communities, as Rizvi contended. Beside Rizvi, Wesa Chau, whose accusations that ‘International education is not achieving what it set out to do’, and that commercialisation is pricing out the people it claims to reach, secured the ‘yes’ case.

The debate exposed problems of commercialisation of education and the fracturing of ‘mobile and localised’ populations. There are messages for international education leaders to take note of their responsibilities and the global consequences of this movement.


A number of conference sessions shone a light on international education leadership, covering issues in strategy and policy. For example, Internationalising the education experience: many parts make the whole discussed ‘embedding internationalisation into the student experience,’ as institutions ‘juggle complex discipline requirements with the needs of regulators and increasingly diverse student cohorts.’

Diversity in international education leadership was examined in Leadership and the diversity deficit in international education. Arfa Noor’s analysis of over 100 survey responses revealed the imbalance of leadership positions in relation to gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnic and cultural background, along with limited career progression opportunities for diverse individuals. This is despite common perceptions that international education is a diverse industry.

Noor’s panellists provided evidence through their stories, of complex lives often struggling against prejudice and other obstacles. One explained how there are ‘so many things that impact you,’ and another showed how ‘to develop techniques to not be afraid.’ The audience was challenged to face a limited understanding of diversity within leadership practices, and the lack of training and skills available in diversity and cultural inclusivity in the workplace.

Structural issues of leadership and diversity awareness opened a vital conversation in: On the straight and narrow? Embracing LGBTIQI+ diversity in international education, enriched by stories of exclusion, identity and resolve.  Suggestions to form new support networks enriched the practical elements of this session.

Good international education leaders are connected to personal stories and issues of diversity. They gain from insights into the lived experiences of international students. Arfa Noor brought the student voice to the table, chairing: Let’s call it what it is: racism from the students’ perspective; Here, panellists described personal encounters with casual and direct racist comments in schools and universities, their responses and coping strategies. What stood out was the systematic practices and attitudes that, intentionally or not, affected the interactions of students who would otherwise have the confidence and capacity to thrive. These were students whose contributions to peer mentoring and voluntary work is exemplary.

One panellist told of his struggles and achievements as a refugee. He described his approach to university student support services for help. He was told this was not their responsibility. How could this happen? Another panellist argued that in education environments there is a ‘responsibility to provide a safe space for interaction.’ Yes, there is.

The theme of this conference, Embracing Diversity can be understood as a process. Global mobility, student experience, student voice, student support; these are inseparable aspects of international education at all levels globally, and locally. As key players in the international education project, international students are courageous. They are also vulnerable. They deserve safe, nurturing spaces in and outside the classroom.

This principle should be embraced by staff and students working together in the conversations that need to be opened. Efforts to improve professional development, understanding and targeted services must be part of that effort; a theme we need to discuss.

Next year, let’s talk more about professionalism.