The University of Sydney is investigating ways increase the percentage of the student body who undertake a foreign exchange from 20 to 50.
The mission is part of their 2016–2020 Strategic Plan. The University has approximately 60,000 students.
The University has outlined two avenues for this change: increasing the number of ‘short-term’ exchanges to the Northern Hemisphere by decreasing the semester’s length to match up with their summer schools; and increasing the number of “super exchange agreements” with foreign universities.
Changing semesters from 13 weeks to 12 would allow students to complete short-term exchanges in summer schools in the Northern Hemisphere.
USyd Deputy Vice-Chancellor Tyrone Carlin told Honi that institutions such as the University of California (UC), Berkeley, run summer exchange programs well-suited to our students, but are currently inaccessible to students due to our comparatively short winter break.
An increase in the length of the break would therefore create a significant increase in exchange opportunities.
The discussion surrounding changes to semester length demonstrates an emphasis on US institutions.
It is unclear if the University feels that the US, a country with the same language and immense cultural similarities to Australia, provides equally the benefits of “intercultural competence and global citizenship” as other universities may.
Currently, one-third of exchanges at the University are short-term — running between two and eight weeks in duration.
Most of these exchanges have been promoted by faculties, but this change would see Sydney Abroad dramatically increase their promotion of these programs.
Simply adding these short-term overseas opportunities to our University’s Global Mobility Database has already seen uptake grow by 300 per cent in 2016.
The difference between these short-term exchange programs and longer placements is undeniable.
UC Berkeley’s website states that 4000 of their 16,000 summer school students are international students.
The University told Honi, “studies have shown that students participating in short-term programs obtain the same benefits as students who undertake longer-term overseas experiences,” as “classes are taught in an intensive mode.”
The benefits of exchange as lauded by the University — personal and social development, intercultural competence, increased academic engagement, and career and network development opportunities — seem to rely on more than a short stay for within a course designed with the knowledge of a largely international candidature.
Universities also focus their summer resources on popular courses.
Institutions like UC Berkeley offer largely traditional subjects — including languages and broad professional development programs — rather than potentially more culturally informative subjects relating specialist elements of American history.
Of the more than 600 summer courses offered at UC Berkeley in 2017, only one discusses Indigenous Americans, and that is a literature study unit.
Additionally, short-term programs allow students who would find a long-term exchange difficult to have an international experience.
Beyond recognising this, the University did not describe any additional programs to Honi that would facilitate the 30 per cent increase in students involved.
The difficulties of going on exchange extend beyond this though: the time spent deciding on what is best for your degree, the administration of organising it and one’s degree, the expense, and the time taken from either your studies or your potential break.
Although students who do experience a short-term exchange greatly appreciate the experience, the adaptations the University is making do not seem linked to the benefits they are claiming.
Short-term programs are no doubt a great experience for many, but the university providing them due to ease and student demand may not be responsible if the claim that they are equivalent to long-term stays is unfounded.
The other strategy being undertaken by the University is the advent of Super Exchange Agreements.
Here, the University is signing contracts with international universities organising for 50–100 students to partake in an exchange there each year.
This is in contrast to the normal arrangements, where each university will take less than 10 students from the other annually.
The University has so far signed Super-Exchange Agreements with the National University of Singapore and the University of Copenhagen.
The University told Honi that these agreements are the culmination of years of planning and did not indicate how future partnerships would be considered and undertaken, or if this was taking place.
Certainly it seems that if the university does intend to create over 10,000 exchange spots this will not be their major strategy.
Both these exchange initiatives seem to suffer from the potential for USyd students to cluster of seas.
This again would harm the “networking” benefit the University celebrates.
At the National University of Singapore, USyd students will make up 10 percent of their exchange students.
Similarly, if major US universities begin to take in large numbers of USyd students the cultural experience seems largely dependent on the ability of students to select subjects and situations that do not group them with the large other numbers of students partaking.
This again begs the question: do the University’s reforms stem from a genuine belief that exchange will benefit students, or is this nothing more than a marketing ploy to fulfil popular demand?