Thursday, 11 October 2012

Human Rights and Human Wrongs

This month the Australian Human Rights Commission has published Principles to promote and protect the human rights of international students.  As Dr Helen Szoke, the Race Discrimination Commissioner said at the launch:
Each year, families all over the globe bid farewell to loved ones as they set out overseas – to study, to work, to explore a wider world. They do so expecting that these loved ones will be treated with respect and with dignity – that they will have the same sort of access to services as others at their destination; that they will be safe; that their rights as human beings will be recognised wherever they go....

...[but] social isolation, poverty, exclusion from health services or affordable housing, sexual harassment and exploitation, excessive transport costs, and prohibitive fees to access government schools for their children are just some of the disadvantages confronting those who rightly come expecting more.

This is in addition, of course, to the occasional physical violence we know has been experienced by some in recent years; as well as the discrimination and hostility that many report.

All of this means that some international students experience life in Australia as second class members of the community, despite their hopes of a first class education.
The principles advocate for
  • the removal of barriers to equality and equality of access to basic services such as health and housing
  • providing access to complaints procedures and legal redress
  • understanding the diversity of international students' needs
  • encouragement of international student participation and engagement
If we use these as a measure of international students'  experiences in the UK, how do we shape up?

On the plus side, international students do have good access to health services and education for their children (at least, for those decreasing number allowed to bring dependants), to travel discounts and at least optional accommodation accreditation schemes.  There are also lots of interesting examples of ways institutions promote student participation and engagement in the UK, though inevitably this is work in progress.

On the negative side, although violent incidents such as the murder of Anuj Bidve are exceptional, evidence shows that international students, like students from BME communities in the UK, do encounter racism (see for instance the NUS No Place for Hate report), and this is an area where we must not be complacent about its impact and the need for support.  (As an aside, there's an interesting Inside Higher Ed article on how some US campuses are challenging online hate speech - a reminder that students encounter racism on campus as well as off.)

On complaints and legal redress, we are currently working with sector bodies to see how these issues can be addressed more systematically across the sectors (public and private), to identify gaps and propose how they can be filled.  Licence revocations and college closures over the last year have demonstrated the potential vulnerability of international students.  For those who have taken the leap to come here, we owe them at the very least a safety net.  But how best to put that in place?  Where should responsibility lie?  Thoughts and comments welcome.

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