Safety before sales: prioritising international student wellbeing

Australia is a highly sought out study destination for international students, having attracted more than 200,000 enrolments over the last year. International education is often described as one of Australia’s biggest exports and international students, a commodity. It is often forgotten that international students bring value to Australia that is substantial and long-lasting, enriching our universities and communities and bringing valuable skills and knowledge to our workforce.

Yet despite these benefits, international students continue to be treated as “temporary residents”, a status that affords them fewer entitlements and protections when it comes to healthcare and legal support.

When it comes to accessing sexual and reproductive health services, the Overseas Student Health Cover Deed (OSHC) does not cover pregnancy-related costs within the first 12 months of students being in Australia. This means international students who have an unplanned pregnancy within their first 12 months of being here are forced to pay out-of-pocket costs for their reproductive healthcare.

This is just one example of how international students continue to experience intersecting inequalities related to gender, race, class, and visa status here in Australia. However, these inequalities also put international students at higher risk of being targeted for sexual violence and intimate partner violence.

Evidence constantly shows the prevalence of sexual violence in universities is unacceptably high. According to the 2021 National Student Safety Survey, one in six students have experienced sexual harassment and one in 20 students have experienced sexual assault since starting university.

In September 2023, the ABC brought to light a pressing issue plaguing Australian universities: the systemic mishandling of sexual violence complaints. The news story highlighted the collective voice of Australian university students who united under the Australian Universities Accord. The student run STOP Campaign compiled a submission containing 50 accounts of assault by students and those in pastoral care positions in universities and colleges. The nature of those accounts pointed to how isolated international students felt, having arrived in a new country then being left to navigate experiences of sexual harassment alone, coupled with the injustice of knowing that their perpetrators would likely suffer no criminal repercussions.

Research shows that social isolation and a lack of familiarity with healthcare and legal services in Australia are significant challenges putting many international students at risk of sexual violence with limited support.

Despite efforts made by support services in universities, international students who have experienced sexual violence are often left feeling neglected by their host country.

So how can we shift our thinking beyond international students’ status as revenue potential and instead to prioritising their safety and wellbeing?

Creating a sense of safety and trust from people who share a similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds is crucial for dealing with the difficulties and trauma of sexual violence. Universities are ideally placed to deliver in-language and plain English information and education to international students on sexual violence, healthcare options and their legal reporting rights, early on during orientation periods and then again throughout their studies.

When academic institutions actively focus their efforts to tackle sexual violence on campus through health prevention, by investing in multicultural recruitment, improving access to interpreters and growing staff capacity and through intersectionality training, these measures have a huge impact. The mandatory online Consent Matters module for students and Universities Australia’s guide on preventing sexual harm are also steps in the right direction.

These efforts should go hand in hand with transparent reporting procedures for disclosures of sexual violence within universities, and clear referral pathways to specialist service providers who are able to provide tailored support for all students.

Taking sustained and thoughtful health prevention actions can hopefully shift Australia’s transactional approach to international students from being economically driven, to a future where we are humanising their lived experiences, and where we are providing students with the safe campuses that they need to academically and socially thrive.

First published in edition #127 of The WRAP on 29 November 2023.