Yet, there are some celebrating 2011, as the 25th anniversary of international education in Australia. They are taking 1986 as the starting point, when the Australian Government made university education for international students full-fee paying whereas it had previously been subsidised, along with that for domestic students. Those celebrating the 25th anniversary are overstating their place in this long story, to the exclusion of those who facilitated the phenomenon and enriched Australia’s education system two generations earlier.
This is actually the year to celebrate the fact that international students have been on our university campuses for 60 years! From the end of the Pacific War in 1945, the new nations of Asia became increasingly aware of the geographical proximity of Australia and of the quality of training offered by Australian educational institutions. Asian governments as well as private citizens turned increasingly to Australian universities and technical schools to meet the growing demand for trained students.Asian students first came to Australia as private individuals or on scholarships granted by their own countries.It was then foreign Minister, Paul Hasluck, who gave us the starting point in 1951, when he told us there were 834 primary and secondary school enrolments by Asian students, and 709 post-secondary enrolments in that year.
Through the 1950s, there was an increasing influx of students from the various countries of South and Southeast Asia into Australian schools, business colleges, technical colleges and universities.In any Australian capital city, eg. Sydney in New South Wales, you can walk a mile and may come across a Malayan medical student, an Indian student of engineering, a Thai social worker, a Pakistani technologist, a Chinese industry chemistry student, a Filipino agriculturist, a Ceylonese girl studying nursing and an Indonesian government administrator, a contemporary Australian student noted.
It is widely and commonly assumed that the first international students were sponsored under the Colombo Plan but it’s a longstanding myth. That’s not to diminish the importance of the Colombo Plan. According to an earlier Foreign Minister, Lord Casey,The Colombo Plan has brought about a whole lot of new personal links between Australia and the countries of Southeast Asia. It has brought about contacts between Ministers of Governments, officials, technical experts, teachers and students. These many contacts have meant opportunities for us getting to know and getting to know us." Indeed, by 1970, 8, 500 students were admitted to Australia under international sponsorship schemes such as the Colombo plan.
But the plain fact is that private fee-paying students always greatly outnumbered Colombo Plan students. By June 1957, there were 4,636 Asian students in Australia, 3,869 of them were private fee-paying students. The majority of the private students came from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia. Those under the Colombo Plan were largely from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma and Pakistan.
Numbers grew quickly. Primary and secondary school enrolments increased from 834 in 1951 to 3911 in 1963. Post-secondary enrolments increased from 709 in 1951 to 7247 in 1963 - mainly in engineering, medicine, nursing and health sciences, education, public administration, industry and agriculture. By early 1964 there were 12,068 students in educational institutions in Australia, studying at primary and secondary schools, or at university and tertiary technical schools, of which there were 10, 814 private students and 1,254 Colombo Plan students.
Sir Bertram Stevens, former NSW Premier and already advocating changes to the White Australia policy, wrote in 1956 that it is refreshing to find so numerically small a group - representing no more than three thousand or so Asian students presently pursuing graduate or post-graduate courses at one or other of our Australian universities.As he noted,Asian students presently account for ten per cent of the full student enrolment at all Australian universities And international students remained around 10 percent of full-time enrolments at Australian universities from that time well into the 1970s and 1980s.It was after 1986 that their proportions on Australian university campuses began to grow as a result of the decision 25 years ago.
With a lot of debate about the place of international students in Australian schools, colleges and universities, few seem to understand the true history of this phenomenon. It is a history older and grander than the 25 years since it was commercialised, and international students were turned into commodities. It’s time to acknowledge the past and celebrate the 60th anniversary of international education this year.Dr Shannon Smith was Counsellor Education at the Australian Embassy, Jakarta from 2005-2010. He is a Jakarta-based public relations consultant.