What happens when something happens? A reflection on professional development

We do not allow unqualified nursing or teaching staff to practise professionally. How do we assess the competency of International Education professionals?

We promote international education as a critical industry: ‘one of the five super growth sectors contributing to Australia’s transition from a resources-based to a modern services economy.’[1] On the ground, we encourage our international students to seek help and advice on everything from accommodation, academic study, to careers and visa conditions. These are matters addressed by general and specialist advisors – the teams of service providers implementing institutional and government strategies.

These same advisors and administrative staff may also need to deal with a critical incident involving a student. What happens, what needs to be done, when ‘something happens’? A student goes missing, an accident, an assault, exploitation at work, a student’s personal crisis? Something that happens off-campus, out of hours, when a senior manager or supervisor is on leave? These scenarios are more common than we often admit, or are able to say.

We do not allow unqualified nursing or teaching staff to practise professionally. Other skilled workers must have appropriate accredited certification. Training is mandatory for people in hospitality and tourism, the other service industries we proudly promote. It is disturbing, and wrong that an international student’s disappearance, accident or other serious incident can be dealt with by an international officer who is untrained or unqualified. The reality for many professional practitioners is their reliance on information loosely networked through peer groups, or on unfamiliar institutional policy and procedures, or on the goodwill of colleagues who happen to be available and can share their expertise.

In 2000, one of the compliance requirements of the first ESOS National Code was to ensure ‘suitably qualified staff’ supported international students. To test this, ISANA developed professional skills and knowledge needs surveys and analyses in 1999 and again in 2004, when 56% of those surveyed reported that their institutions did not support their attendance at professional development sessions, or regarded it as unimportant ‘for staff at your level.’ One respondent wrote across her paper: ‘Anyone can do it, right?’ The National Code of 2007 had no such ‘qualification’ requirement. This is also disturbing and wrong.

Where does this leave professional development in this hugely successful industry? Valued? Adequate? Available? High quality? From my research,[2] and from recent conversations with people in international student services and support, I’d say not yet adequately available nor adequately sophisticated. This is not simply a personal view, it’s framed by a historical narrative in which things have both changed, and have stayed the same.

A prototype workshop, Introduction to International Education, developed by ISANA for people working with international students was a bright idea in 1998 that gathered strength in 1999 after a piece of research that asked international student advisors to log their daily student-institution interactions for a full month-onerous for the advisors, but a data treasure trove. These people reported everything from general enquiries to issues with study management, referral to health and other services, to visa expiry, non attendance, relationships, access to information, work rights; a veritable clearing house of student life and academic problems. These encounters are still commonly reported, but not always documented.

The Australian government supported the first Foundations of International Education workshop in 2003, now updated and delivered at the annual ISANA conferences. In 2004 there began another bold initiative, the development of an accredited Diploma of International Education Services developed in Queensland by PIER.[3] This qualification covered critical incident management, competency in compliance administration, international student support programs, cross-cultural teaching practice, student accommodation, marketing and finance. It was based on good design, sound teaching and applicability to the contemporary workplace. It was delivered online across the country to all education sectors, using interactive and tutoring models. Its supporters included the Queensland government, who pledged ‘learning accounts’ for all relevant staff in CRICOS registered government schools to undertake the Diploma as part of a systematic staff development program. PIER successfully delivered the Diploma until 2012, but where is it now buried? This could have become a national standard. Did we decide it wasn’t necessary? Oh yes, anyone can do it, right?

Instead, we’ve turned our collective attention to compliance administration, digging out dodgy agents and non-compliant colleges and, more recently, ‘non-genuine students’ as if this was the main business of international education. To be fair, there are admirable institutions who have modelled the professional development needs of their own staff and who manage systematic in-house training, including for academic staff who, of course, also support students. It’s ok if you happen to work in one of the committed institutions. But until there is an obligation to raise the national standards of our training in this area, we make do with silo offerings. Let’s not promise, as the National Strategy does, to ‘deliver support that meets or exceeds international student needs’ (p.14), because without developing all our staff properly, we can’t, and don’t.

What’s history got to do with it?

I’m reminded of a colleague’s comment recently; that we should always acknowledge the work of those who have gone before us; ‘the shoulders on which we stand.’

For me, one of those guiding lights was the late Professor Tony Adams in the mid 1990s, who always supported the knowledge and understanding we, in newly created professional roles, needed to gather and share. We learnt to be creative and generous in an increasingly market-focussed and competitive environment.

Then there were the deniers; one remarked with disdain that international student advisors were hand-holding international students. We needed to be tougher, he said. I thought at the time that hand holding was actually affirming. If we could personally welcome and directly support each one of our several thousand international students, that would be an achievement, surely? But, as another executive reminded me, when things get tough, the first thing to go is student support; this should be obvious. We can’t jeopardise the numbers, but we can let the hands go. I’m still waiting for someone to explain that logic.

In the light of real ongoing issues that we prefer not to speak about, assaults, scams, insecurities, mental health issues, and whatever else challenges our international education professionals, shouldn’t our approach be to provide more, not less, support for these people? While institutions are required to have a critical incident policy, for example, why is there no ESOS obligation to train staff in understanding and applying that policy? Sadly, in my experience, most people working professionally with international students will do whatever is necessary to help, even without resources or training. Dedication is easy to exploit. Burnout is common.

What is to be done?

We need to distinguish between information sharing (the networking and the authoritative kind), professional development (the events and activities, generously but sometimes arduously provided by professional bodies and institutions) and formal training (a standardised, accredited form of learning that ensures everyone has portable and high-level skills, knowledge and understanding). Formal training should be the baseline. We should think and act above the minimum standard required by the ESOS National Code that, like the National Strategy, says nothing of substance about professional development.

Josef Mestenhauser was a wise man. He understood the value of a professional international education workforce, whose knowledge, he said, ‘is a composite of mixing, evaluating, adjusting, using, integrating, selecting, rejecting and combining several knowledge systems.’[4] For people working with international students, it also requires an understanding of an environment that is in constant flux, in which student mobility takes new forms and in which cultural and technological shifts almost defy our understanding. This understanding is not the privilege of executives; all people working with international students need to access this knowledge. We must keep working on it¾researching, refining needs analyses, updating content, reaching out to new staff.

Collaboration is essential between academic staff, professional staff, community organisations and government strategists. We could be setting benchmarks, as Kahn and Agnew have suggested: thinking about the world relationally and through plurality and multiplicity; considering critical self-reflection; recognising interconnected and interdependent lives; pursuing understanding through collaboration and collective knowledge production; fostering responsibility and taking action.[5]

In addition, new knowledge and understanding should be developed about culture and cultural learning, and the way current international students experience their mobility and their capacities for relationships, employment and social change. In our thinking about preparing staff to work with these students, will we have the courage to implement a properly constructed national curriculum? Will we remember to ask, ‘What happens when something happens’?

[1] National Strategy for International Education 2025 (2016). Minister’s foreword.

[2] See my papers: Towards Best Practice in International Education: Staff Training and Professional Development, IDP 17th International Education Conference, Melbourne, October 2003, and Setting Standards for International Student Support, 2007 ISANA International Conference, Adelaide, December 2007.

[3] Professional International Education Services Ltd. PIER still delivers other online courses including the Education Agent Training Course (EATC).

[4] Mestenhauser, J. (2000). Dual Functions of International Education Professionals: in search of their knowledge base. European Association for International Education, Amsterdam, Occasional paper no.12, pp.31-49.

[5] Kahn, H. & Agnew, M. (2015). Global Learning Through Difference: Considerations for Teaching, Learning, and the Internationalization of Higher Education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 21(1).