Impacts of international education on community environments

A NZ government review found that no studies identified ‘the impact of international students on the larger community’

The expanding presence of internationalising institutions in cities and towns is typically accompanied by developing physical infrastructure, service provision and strategic relationships. In this context, multiple dimensions of engagement imply potential and actual impacts on communities and social relationships. These might include teaching and learning practices that facilitate cultural understandings and interactions, the effects of supporting international students’ experiences and contributions, and initiating new forms of institution-community collaboration through policy and programs. Each of these dimensions potentially develops relationships between local publics and institutions. This paper looks at engagement that inevitably impacts in some way on both institutions and their communities.

The intentions of international educators to develop and build social and cultural capital¾education quality, research capacity, intercultural relationships, diplomacy and community development¾underpin institution-community interactions. This objective acknowledges the ambition of pioneers in the field whose vision was often more altruistic than material, and which recognised potential for international education to contribute to social and cultural change (Adams, Banks & Olsen, 2010, p.10).

Despite positive objectives, related research literature that explores tangible impacts or transformations is limited. Despite this, in professional practice and institutional records, there are documented community-based transformations.

International education in the social environment

In 2001, the New Zealand government’s commissioned literature review of local and international research in this area found that no studies were identified ‘that explicitly examine the impact of international students on the larger community’ (Ward, 2001, np). In her report, Ward was critical that, ‘Despite the need to learn more about the dynamics of these [community] interactions, most research has been conducted within educational institutions as opposed to within the broader community’, indicating that communities as social entities have been under-represented. As expected, research activity is increasing in this area, but there are gaps in the content and continuity of the literature. This is perhaps a result of limited research collaboration between international education institutions and wider community groups that looks beyond documenting strategically popular community engagement practices, and that examines tangible impacts on social change. Further, practitioner-researchers who often work at the institution-community interface in international student programs and community partnerships grapple with limited resources and support to refine, extend and publish their work in this area.

The importance of context

The community context itself is important because universities and other educational institutions ‘are embedded within various overlapping historical, political, and economic relationships with their surrounding communities’ (Dempsey, 2010, p.364). Universities and wider communities have distinct histories, locations, structures, power relations and capacities to form relationships between their constituents. Dempsey’s study of a developing community-university partnership between the University of North Carolina and three distinct geographical regions of North Carolina proposes that an abstract conception of community suggests ‘an already constituted, fully formed community’ (Dempsey 2012, p. 366) by denying diversity and the transformative potential of collaboration. In Australia, Ruth Fincher’s work on the experiences of international students in the city of Melbourne also challenges the assumption of a ‘cosmopolitan norm’ (Fincher, 2011, p.912), suggesting we should consider more seriously the role of dynamic community factors in the impacts of international education activity.

It is assumed here that the impacts of international education are locally mediated. To illustrate this, Munro and Livingston (2012) examined the impacts of student populations in five UK cities, where there was unmet demand for and stresses upon the provision of appropriate student housing. Data from interviews with students (not specifically from overseas), residents and community service providers demonstrated the differentiation of these five local environments by attitude, perceived social challenges and institution-community responses. The study found that the particular local context, and the role of the universities in mitigating negative impacts shaped the ways students interacted with these communities. In another study in New Zealand, Cooper and Ho (2005) researched a range of public perceptions and programs across four New Zealand cities, finding variations across cities according to issues faced, size of the international student population and the background of international education in those places.

Further, the attitudes of communities towards local universities may affect the degree to which institutional collaborations and consultations will be productive. In her analysis of the partnership-building process, Dempsey cites one community-based participant whose perspective illustrates both divergence of approaches for community development and the importance of consultation:

[You’ve] got all these papers sitting on top of shelves that you’ve been doing all these years. And the one component that was missing was that the community was not involved in it other than giving the information. It was never brought back to the community. (Dempsey, 2010, p.372).

The example illustrates the potential of institution-community relationship and the mutually constitutive and complex possibilities of education institutions and their local environments. Other elements are relevant in the effects and impacts of international education; internationalisation theory, policy and practice and sites of institution-community engagement.

Impacts: Internationalisation in learning communities

internationalising institutions are framed as communities of practice (Wenger, 1998, 2006) that share common concerns and values, that strive to improve not only their pedagogical and curriculum environment but also, typically, the social environment of campus and community. Contributions in the internationalisation literature by de Wit (2011), Jones & Killick, (2007); Jones, (2010); Killick (2007) Knight, (2013) Leask, (2012, 2010); Trahar, Green, de Wit, & Whitsed, (2016) explore education environments that may also extend into host communities (Beelen & Jones, 2015), and the value of international students as resources in host-communities (Mestenhauser, 2003; De Wit & Jones, 2014).

Leask and Carroll (2011) found that ‘reflective practice and seemingly small adjustments to a program can significantly impact on the extent to which students engage in meaningful cross-cultural interaction’ (Leask & Carroll, 2011, p.653-4), indicating that building student skills and capacities to interact with cultural others will impact the academic and social environment in some way. Similarly, specific interventions such as mentor and peer support programs and facilitated mobility among international and domestic student cohorts have demonstrated value in relationship-forming between individuals and groups (Baron & Carr, 2008). In particular, new social networks and opportunities for student development through such interventions support student retention, academic transition to university and learning strategies for international and domestic students (Baron & Menzies, 2014; Arkoudis & Baik, 2014). Thus, beyond personal skills and development, social impacts of internationalisation practices potentially emerge in the lived experience of students as part-time workers, graduate employees and as globally mobile citizens.

In sectors other than higher education, some valuable exploration exists in school communities. Arber (2008) and Arber & Blackmore (2011) studied the responses of schools to the presence of international students, finding that, for the most part, the impacts of international students on school communities included modified teaching practice and improved pastoral care management for the whole student body across the schools in the study. Across education sectors, international students are acknowledged as bringing ‘an international perspective to classroom discussions and that they challenge and encourage teachers to consider new methods of instruction that are more consistent with their previous learning experiences’ (Ward, 2001, np).

Impacts: community contexts

The nature and role of wider communities in the history and development of international education remains under-recognised. Work is still emerging that examines the mutual impacts on communities and international students’ off-campus experiences such as in accommodation and use of community services. Fincher, Carter, Tombesi, Shaw, & Martel (2009) researched international students’ geographic and social interactions with the city, gathering evidence of mapped student movements and follow-up interview data. The authors concluded that physical infrastructure and ‘limitations of commercially developed student accommodation and an unwelcoming urban landscape’ (Durance, 2016, p.119) were restricting factors impacting on the subjects’ urban experience. This, the authors argued, resulted in ‘poverty of social experience and engagement’ in Melbourne (Fincher, Carter, Tombesi, Shaw, & Martel, 2009, p. 94).

Impacts: international student advocacy and public awareness

International student impacts through advocacy and activism remain largely ignored by research, with some exceptions (Fincher, 2011; Durance 2016). International student organisations, representation, advocacy and activism ‘involve international students in Australia’s multicultural community through events and programs’ (AFIS website). In doing this they generate a range of impacts including public awareness, media attention and in a number of instances, policy change (Australian government, 2009; Chau, Li & Noor, 2010; Durance, 2016). International students and their representative bodies (CISA, AFIS, FISA, for example) are also at the forefront of political activity and have significant potential and actual influence on media and policy. Michiel Baas (2009, 2015) has contributed valuable data and analysis on the impacts of the ‘Indian student crisis’ in 2008-2009, predominantly in Melbourne, raising issues about the positioning of international students in mainstream communities. His comment that the critical incidents witnessed in the public domain at this time gave rise to an ‘array of discussions ranging from the future and reputation of Australian education to the diversity, multiculturalism and the presence of ‘others’ in Australian cities. (Baas, 2015, p. 57). During this time, the presence on international students in major cities became a part of the public conversation, with media commentary focusing on reputational risk to the international education sector (Collins, 2010). Paltridge, Mayson & Schapper, (2014) produced an extensive analysis of The Australian newspaper’s coverage of the period, describing the nature and impacts of the incidents on negative public opinion that was easily generated through simple triggers of underlying attitudes about Indian students, ‘representing a shorthand for “international students”’ (ibid, p.111).

Impacts: employment practices

Part of the discourse during the critical incidents mentioned above, and in the current period, relate to the working conditions of international students, their position as temporary non-citizen workers and consequent structural change to workplaces. In the UK, Munro, Turok and Livingston (2009) describe impacts of student labour on workplace practices where the ‘availability of a supply of students willing to accept short-term contracts, intensive work practices, and nonstandard routines may enable employers to change the way they manage their workforce, including having fewer permanent full-time staff and more temporary part-timers’ (Munro, Turok & Livingston, 2009, p.1817).

Similarly, In Australia, the literature records social impacts on the employment market of international students, including public exposure of poor work practices. Data gathered on international student employment by Nyland, Forbes-Mewett, Marginson, Ramia, Sawir, & Smith (2009) had already described a vulnerable workforce, many working beyond the legal hours allowable on their student visas. There were a number of reasons for this, but the situation was seen to give rise to exploitation by employers who could pressure students to work as requested, or be reported to the immigration authorities. Later, in 2012, the union United Voice collaborated with Victorian TAFE International to publish their findings of similar conditions in the retail cleaning industry (Victorian TAFE International/United Voice Victoria, 2012; United Voice, 2013), where international students working extra hours for no pay and enduring rude/abusive behaviour from supervisors was rife. The advocacy of the international education VET sector gave impetus to student activism and public debates about fair work and systemic non-compliance with federal workplace laws.

On 9 April 2016 the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) released its report on the findings of its inquiry into the 7-Eleven franchise network, finding widespread wages fraud, anticipating court proceedings and supporting information and advice for the workforce affected¾largely, but not entirely international students. A significant impact for social policy is that the FWO is now ‘receiving more requests for assistance from visa-holders than ever before’ (Australian Government, Fair Work Ombudsman, Statement on 7-Eleven, 9 April, 2016). Overseas workers are now actively encouraged to report exploitation and poor conditions.

Impact: social policy

A number of Australian national, state and local government initiatives explicitly support international students’ engagement with their communities (COAG, 2010; City of Melbourne, 2013; Committee for Melbourne, 2015; Government of Victoria, 2013, 2016). Mutual benefits include better student representation and ‘a more effective means of exchanging information and advice’ (COAG, p. 14). Part of this process involves developing and incorporating welcome activities and including ‘international students as equal members of the local community’ (Committee for Melbourne, 2015, p.10). Through these shifts, the social and cultural business of cities and towns is impacted by international education. In reality, however, student representation is yet to be integral to international education policy making.


The connection between community engagement and international education is important to understand in relation to economic development, relationships and the sharing of knowledge and skills (Fleischman, Raciti & Lawley, 2014, p.3). These connections include interactions, interventions and internationalisation practices that aim to cultivate relationships on and beyond campuses between international students, local groups and organisations. Impacts, positive and otherwise, are seen in public debate and policy responses to events and incidents as well as systematic practical strategies to manage social change.

Research to explore students’ personal development, social wellbeing and employability is important (Fincher, 2010; Tran & Pham 2016), and may offer institutions and their publics enriched understandings, more targeted student management strategies and more informed community relationships. Also important is how communities regard themselves in relation to international education. The dimensions of change, such as effects on stakeholder groups over time (attitudinal change and agency) and the magnitude of that change (anecdotal or systemic) could be more clearly defined in research designs that account for community contexts.

A greater research focus on the consequences of our internationalisation activities would enhance our understanding of communities and provide institutions, communities and policy-makers with deeper understandings of international education in all its community settings.



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 [1] Inaugurated on 7 July 2010, the Council for International Students in Australia (CISA) is the national peak student representative body for international students. It has strong recognition from the other international education peak bodies and the Australian federal and state governments.

[2] The Australian Federation of International Students (AFIS) 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.

[3] The Federation of Indian Students in Australia (FISA) was incorporated in 2002. During the incidents involving assaults on Indian students in Australia, the Association played a high profile role in many Australian, Indian, and other international media sources.