MSA: Failing International Students?

In 2010, about 21% of students enrolled at Monash’s Clayton campus were international students. International students are one of the most vulnerable student groups on campus, and are understandably in need of a substantial amount of support to adjust to a new cultural, social and academic environment.  International students face many challenges associated with moving to a new country, including adapting to new learning styles and environments as well as the requirement to use English as the primary language of academic communication.  Studies have shown that ‘personal loneliness, both routine and profound, are often endemic to the international student experience’ due to cultural isolation and difficulty in adjusting to new surroundings.  Social isolation has the potential to ‘shape the possibilities and limits of academic learning’ as well as affecting the safety and well-being of international students. (1).

Given this, it would be fair to expect that the Monash Student Association (MSA) would be doing its utmost to ensure that international students are adequately supported. The MSA’s Student Rights Office is often visited by international students seeking support. Furthermore, the number of international students facing disciplinary action by the University (for not meeting their study requirements) is disproportionately higher than for their local counterparts. Unfortunately, recent decisions by the MSA administration seem to indicate that the pressing need for international student services is not being met.

Monash University International Students Service (MUISS) is a division of the MSA that exists to provide support to and protect the rights of international students. When MUISS first became part of the MSA in 1995, a full-time staff member was employed to work as the Divisional Support Officer (DSO). The DSO’s role was to assist the work of the annually elected MUISS Committee and to generally provide support for activities and events as well as for any issues that international students may be facing.

In 2008 May Garcia, after having served for over half a decade as DSO, stopped working at MUISS and the position was reduced to three days a week. Vincent Goh was appointed as the DSO for MUISS in 2009, and remained in the position until his resignation in March this year. Since March, no new staff member has been appointed to work exclusively for MUISS. Instead, the MSA’s Office Administrator (who is already employed full-time to do administration work) has been given the additional responsibility of supporting MUISS.

It is unclear who made the decision to put MUISS-support as an add-on to the responsibilities of a staff member who is already full-time, or what the rationale behind it was. The Monash Student Council (MSC), which is supposed to be the managing body of the MSA, had no input into the decision and was not even informed of the decision as per minutes of MSC meetings this year, nor was any approval or endorsement sought from the MUISS Committee.

Having a staff member is particularly critical to MUISS’ work, as all members of the MUISS committee are international students. As such, they are not permitted to decrease their study load to part-time even if they become elected student representatives. MUISS committee members are not paid for their time by the MSA, have work restrictions due to their visa-type (and so find it difficult to get sufficient paid work externally), and pay an exorbitant amount of money in fees. These restrictions make it hugely difficult for international students to find large amounts of time to dedicate to extra-curricular and non-work related activities. As such, the existence of a dedicated MUISS staff member is important to ensure the vitality of MUISS and uphold high standards of support.

Arriving in a new country where you know nobody, have no family or friends, find the local language difficult to speak, suffer financial difficulty and are faced with a culture and society vastly different to the one you grew up in can be a difficult and, without the right support, traumatic experience. Add to this the responsibility of becoming an elected student representative and being expected to look after the welfare and rights of other international students, and it is possible to begin to understand the pressures MUISS committee members face. Committee members are additionally expected to organise events, activities and information sessions while studying full time. Being expected to do this without payment and, most importantly, without significant staff support, places a burden on the shoulders of students who are already negotiating a huge array of challenges.

In comparison to international students, local students involved with the MSA and its committees do not need to pay any fees upfront, have no special work restrictions and have the right to study part-time or even go on intermission after being elected. Most local students elected as Office Bearers of the MSA do reduce their study load or take intermission in order to devote the necessary time to their duties as student representatives.  In addition, Office Bearers are paid an honorarium by the MSA to help cover their living expenses.

Why a designated MUISS staff member is no longer employed by the MSA is unclear. What is clear is that if the MSA endeavours to hold true to its obligations to support students, it is essential that the MSA ensures that the framework exists for students to be supported. Until a MUISS staff member is re-employed, the negative effects on international students, already burdened by an exploitative system, will go unabated.

Ali Majokah is the Education (Academic Affairs) Officer at the MSA

(1) Sawir et al., ‘Loneliness and International Students’, Journal of Studies in International Education, Vol. XX, No. X, 2007, pp. 2-3.  

Ali Majokah

The author Ali Majokah

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