International students teach Australia to be better: Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby

Photo: Commonwealth Secretariat

Photo: Commonwealth Secretariat

“AUSTRALIA’S level of racism has gone down on the Richter scale,” retired High Court judge Michael Kirby says.

“From a 10 when I was a boy, it’s now a seven.”

It is a disturbing statement.

That it comes from the man who retired in 2009 as the longest-serving judge in Australian history only reinforces how far the nation still has to come.

“Australia was built on racist attitudes, racism was enshrined in legislation,” the former High Court Justice says.

“There is a long way to go.”

Yet the number of international students who have arrived in the last decade shows Australia is a popular place to learn. And it is the international education industry which has helped shift the views of many, Mr Kirby says.

Bringing young international students with “flexible attitudes” to the island nation helps Australians to know, understand and embrace people from different backgrounds, Mr Kirby states.

“It’s easier to dislike them when you don’t know them,” says the man who sat on Australia’s highest court for 13 years, and who for nine years was Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney.

“[Meeting different people] reinforces what Australian students are taught in theory.”

The ease of meeting a student from another nation has never been greater.  In 2009 the number of enrolled international students hit a record 630,663, up 130 per cent from just seven years earlier.

His Honour (he no longer retains the Justice title) does not pretend to know exactly how great a factor international education has been in creating a more tolerant country. But the effect of being able to see and relate to those who might seem different reminds him of the influence a TV soap opera had decades ago on opinions of the gay population.

The suburban based soapie Number 96 portrayed the first openly homosexual man on Australian television, a lawyer played by Joe Hasham.

Number 96 played a significant role in changing attitudes to gays…it did more than two hundred learned, serious-minded speeches could have,” Mr Kirby says.

In addition to the personal connection many Australians have had with international students in the last 20 years, countless businesses and education providers have come to rely on the foreign student dollar.

Mr Kirby says this can help to change some intolerant views.

“[As] more Australians get an economic investment, this gives people a stake in [the students’] presence,” he says.


Crimes against international students

Yet seven on the Richter scale is still an almighty quake, and overseas students have not all been free from attack – physical and verbal.

Robberies of students, particularly from India, and a number of highly-publicised serious assaults have seen public demonstrations in Melbourne in 2009, with the Indian community demanding better protection.

In February last year, Meld Magazine had reported the acknowledgment by then-Chief Police Commissioner Simon Overland that race had been playing some part in the over-representation of international students, in particular Indian students, among robbery victims.

“Undoubtedly some of what we’re seeing is racism,” the Chief Commissioner had said.

Michael Kirby is surprised to learn of the remark from Meld, but is glad at least one public official was prepared to make it at the time.

“I support that,” Mr Kirby says.

“Had there been more comments of that kind, there would have been less damage to the Australian education industry, particularly in India.”

Mr Kirby is highly critical of the “denialist” manner in which the spate of attacks on international students had been managed and presented by government.

He acknowledges, as Chief Commissioner Overland had at the time, most victims were likely targeted because they were on their own, often travelling late at night for work, and were easy targets for opportunistic criminals.

“They probably would have been attacked even if they weren’t of [predominantly] Indian background,” MrKirby says.

But he says authorities had failed to confront the issue as they should have.

“They should have made it clear that if there was even the slightest element of race, perpetrators would face the full effect of the law, and race would be taken into account in sentencing.”

The co-author of a decade-long study on racist attitudes in Australia agrees with Kirby that the 2009 attacks on Indian students, to the extent they had been racially motivated, reflects a more widespread intolerance.

Head of University of Western Sydney’s Social Sciences Department Kevin Dunn has said the 2009 attacks had revealed “a deep undercurrent of racist incivility” against those who appear different.

With his report, published in September, showing more than 43 per cent of Indians and Sri Lankans surveyed had experienced discrimination via name-calling or similar insults, Professor Dunn echoes Kirby’s view that leaders had to open up and confront the issue.

“This country would be in a far better position today if more political effort was expended on anti-racism initiatives than it was on denying racism,” Professor Dunn said.

Michael Kirby says the public relations handling of the 2009 events had been “very poor”.

“It was not a good look,” Kirby says.

Since 2009, the number of international students enrolled in Australian courses has dropped, Australian International Education figures show.

The number of Indian students enrolled had fallen by more than 20,000 in 2010. The Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program, completed by Michael Knight this year, outlines a range of factors responsible the dip, with the 2009 events and their publicity included among separate economic and permanent residency factors.

“[The attacks] undermined Australia’s reputation as a safe destination for students…it will take some time to overcome the negative perceptions,” Mr Knight said.


Attitudes towards migration

An honorary graduate of universities in India and Sri Lanka, Mr Kirby says while there is a view in Asia that Australia accepts student migration simply for economic advantage, the nation will remain an attractive place for Asian students.

“That’s logical; we’re an English speaking, democratic, generally safe country on the edge of Asia,” Mr Kirby says.

Economics aside, Mr Kirby would like to see more international students studying at secondary schools around the country. It is in our interests, he says, for young Australians to meet people from other backgrounds.

Mr Kirby says international education can help Australia show the world it can be relied on to provide a place to study free from the racism of the past.

“We must be worthy of the trust of other countries.”

There are 3 comments

  1. mike

    This article/statement is a 7 out of 10 untruth… as a country we are not interested in learning about new culture/people, we barely tolerate our own people. There are a number of jokes about politics for statements exactly like this. If we be honest with ourselves the only reason we have international students in Australia is the ludacris administration/schooling/medical fees Australian education institutions charge International students to learn. International students have this false hope that a permanent residency visa will be obtained after committing X amount of years and four to ten times (not an exaggeration) the amount of dollars an Aus citizen pays for any course in Australia, which by the way happens 3 out of 10 times (not accurate just a number i pulled). We are more racist than we have ever been, and unless some kind of miracle happens this wont change. By the way I know the difference between being honest and being pessimistic. I apologise for any offence.

  2. diane

    hi mike, your honesty is refreshing – and i mean that in the best possible way. (: after living in australia for five years as an international student, i like to think that my second home is becoming more tolerant to new migrants. my cousin received a scholarship from my home country in 1997 to study speech therapy in queensland. when she came back for visits, she would relegate horror stories of being ostracised in buses, and having eggs thrown at her. thankfully, neither of those things have happened to me.

    no doubt there are students who believe they will gain permanent residency after living in australia for a number of years, but i guess that’s because it is possible in other western democracies, just not australia. and they aren’t familiar with the australian migration policy. is that so bad though? it is a testament to how good australia is, that people would like to stay and live there after a few years.

    coming from singapore, a migrant country, i need to say that even i am hesitant of new migrants. i, too, believe that racism won’t change anytime soon in my home country. it is a horrifying thought, but it also means that my generation – which has been labelled as “apathetic” – is willing to stand up and take ownership of the land we live in.

    either way, i believe it’s a catch-22. migration can boost the economy, just not in the way we want it to. after all, we don’t live in a perfect world, as much as i wish we could.

  3. Pasha

    Australia is a hard to live country for international students. International students have to pay 4 to 5 times more to universities, rather than regular students. And all scholarships and tuition exemptions are just for local students, specially in bachelor level. Which means that international student have to pay up to 8 times more to system. Permanent residency is hard to receive for international students. Australia is big country with more than 40 hectares of arable land and lots of renewable water source which lets the Australia hold 180 million population with USA standards. But as I said, the situation for international students are so hard that even most qualified students are hesitant to choose Australia. Specially Undergraduate students that don’t have enough access to scholarships and their education period is so long. For example a well qualified students from Iran have to pay about 120,000 just for tuition and at least 50,000 for other expenses to achieve bachelor degree in Environmental and Architectural studies. That means you should be millionaire to enter to Australia for a bachelor degree. The local students pays something around 20,000 for tuition, yet they have long list of scholarships cut.

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