Cultural shock: how schools can help overseas students to speak up and adapt to education in Australia

12 October 2017

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary, Frances Adamson, has encouraged Chinese students at Australian universities to speak up if they hear something they disagree with, if they wish to gain an “authentic Australian education”.  Ms Adamson said in a speech she delivered to the Confucius Institute annual lecture at the University of Adelaide, that “silencing of anyone in our society - from students to lecturers to politicians – is an affront on our values.   Enforced silence runs counter to academic freedom."

Ms Adamson pointed out that while Chinese students are reluctant to "air the laundry" due to strict censorship laws, Australians are more than happy to tell each other exactly what they think and even freely criticise our government or representatives. Although Ms Adamson's comments were made in relation to university students who are typically aged 18 plus, they are still relevant to schools.  Ms Adamson's comments highlight some key concerns for schools whose students are generally aged under 18 and come from different countries and cultures which make them more vulnerable than local students.

Schools should be asking themselves:are our international students encouraged to speak up and provide feedback?

Some context

Currently, international education is Australia's third largest export. In 2016, Chinese students were the largest number of international students to arrive in Australia.

Controversy has not escaped international students with a handful of incidents where student have told universities they are upset about certain aspects of the syllabus which is interpreted as offensive or insensitive to China and the Chinese Government.  By most accounts, Chinese students are accustomed to being monitored for creating or engaging in politically sensitive material and may be unwilling to take part in political or other sensitive debates in Australia. While precedent has shown that Chinese students studying in countries like Australia and the US need to be careful about how they exercise their right to free speech while in those countries, this creates a tension as education institutions are legally required to offer education and avenues for feedback to international students.   Students at universities and schools are protected by the legislative framework under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act).

Duty of care to all students to provide a safe and encouraging environment

It is well established that schools must exercise a common law duty of care towards their students to keep them safe at school. In addition, in every state and territory, as part of registration requirements, there is a requirement for schools to provide a safe and supportive environment for their students and this may mean allowing students to feel free about expressing their views and values without fear or persecution.  For example, in Victoria, schools have a commitment to equal rights for all before the law, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  This includes international students being aware of their right to voice their opinion and any concerns they may have with the school without fear of retaliation.

Schools can assist overseas students with any issues about their rights and freedoms when residing in Australia, such as the right to freedom of speech, by providing education materials or simply discussing their rights and other important cultural factors with them.

ESOS Obligations for schools

Registered providers of education courses to overseas students must also comply with their obligations under the ESOS legislative framework. As registered providers, schools must meet their obligations under the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students (National Code).  The National Code includes Standards which are relevant to how schools must address the cultural shock experienced by overseas students and offer avenues for making complaints safely.

As the National Code 2017 is due to be replaced with the National Code 2018 from January next year (refer to our previous article), this article will address the relevant provisions of the National Code 2018.

There are two relevant standards which apply to how schools should approach cultural differences and making complaints:

  • Standard 6: Overseas student support services
  • Standard 10: Complaints and appeals. 

Under Standard 6, schools must assist overseas students to adjust to study and life in Australia and have appropriate orientation programs that assist overseas students to access the information and services they require.  This includes providing information on adjusting to life in Australia, English language programs, legal services and information about internal complaints and appeals processes

Standard 10 of the National Code 2018 requires that schools ensure that their overseas students have the right to natural justice protected through access to professional, timely, inexpensive and documented complaints handling and appeals processes.

This means schools must ensure overseas students are informed of their internal complaints handling processes and policy. If a complaint cannot be resolved internally, schools can direct students to external avenues to investigate complaints, such as the Commonwealth Overseas Students Ombudsman (OSO).  The OSO provides an unbiased, third party service which investigates complaints about problems that intending, current and former overseas students may have with private schools, colleges, universities and other education providers in Australia.

How the National Code helps overseas students

Although Ms Adamson's comments were made in relation to Chinese students at universities, they should resonate with schools who have students from China and other countries.  Both schools and universities must comply with National Code 2018, meaning that schools may refer to the approaches taken by universities in terms of how they comply with the Code. If both Standards 6 and 10 are effectively met, schools the National Code 2018 will work to help students to voice their concerns and not be afraid to speak up.


William Kelly

William is a Legal Research Coordinator at CompliSpace. He assists with drafting and reviewing policies and procedures, as directed, for CompliSpace clients as well as writing regular articles for the School Governance blog. William is a lawyer and an officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria.