In 2019 the IEPCP, having adopted the strategic priority of social inclusion, recognised the multiple challenges faced by international students living and studying in the inner east region of Melbourne at Monash, Deakin and Swinburne Universities and Holmesglen and Box Hill Institutes – a large vulnerable population group in our catchment. These students face a number of stressors that can put them at risk of higher levels of psychological distress and social isolation than domestic students, such as acculturation stress, living independently for the first time, financial vulnerability, lack of personal support networks, adapting to a new teaching and learning style, employment exploitation and discrimination, barriers to accessing health and wellbeing support services, and racism.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 exacerbated the existing challenges and stressors faced by international students including disruption to study, loss of employment income, exclusion from federal income support, changed living circumstances resulting in further isolation or overcrowding and in some cases homelessness, and forced separation from family and friends, particularly with the extended Melbourne boundary hard lockdown.
What did we do?
We brought together tertiary education institutions, public health services, community service organisations, and Victorian Government representatives in the East to collaborate and establish health and wellbeing service referral pathways for international students as a preventative measure following analysis of data about poor health outcomes and a series of suicides amongst this cohort.
The partnership was a unique opportunity to:
- Broaden awareness of the challenges and stressors faced by international students in the Inner East, particularly for local government, health and community services to hear directly from higher education providers, and for partners to hear from students about their lived experience
- Bring together the tertiary education sector in the catchment for the first time to share practice in relation to student wellbeing
- Strengthen relationships across the health service sector and coordinate referral pathways for at risk students on campuses
- Identify opportunities to promote inclusion and connectedness for socially isolated students, such as referrals into rewarding volunteer opportunities, especially those critical for the recovery phase of COVID-19 (e.g. social contact with isolated older people)
- Bring together international student representatives across the campuses to share information and strategies for resilience
The Partnership provided a platform for stakeholders to identify issues of mutual concern and share service and support information. There was significant expertise and knowledge across the partnership and a willingness to collaborate and find ways to improve outcomes for students, which meant the Partnership was well placed to immediately pivot and respond to the developing crisis for many international students from the onset of the pandemic in Melbourne.
In December 2020, the IEPCP hosted an online forum delivered by members of the Partnership Leaving No-One Out: International Students and Inclusion. The forum featured 22 speakers including seven international students, a presentation from Monash University on co-designing programs with international students, and a showcase of best practice examples by local community-based organisations of the inclusion of international students. The IEPCP website has recordings from the forum.
As part of this work, the IEPCP has written a comprehensive report on the benefits, insights and activities of the partnership, including recommendations for future action, as well as a timeline of the challenges and responses for international students in Victoria in 2020.
International students still face multiple challenges as they seek to recover from the disruptions to their lives by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Inner East International Students & Inclusion Partnership continues to collaborate and discuss mechanisms for student support, as well as exploring ways to address the more structural issues of racism in the future.
How did the PCP contribute to this success?
The Partnership was founded on established relationships, leveraging IEPCP’s stakeholder connections. Membership was canvassed with individuals in key positions across the catchment who have organisational responsibility for international students; and those providing local health, youth and community support services. An international student/advocate was recruited by the IEPCP to support the Partnership direction.