Interrogating International Education and questioning a Western ideology

The rise in exorbitant international schools and universities demands a closer examination at international education’s ideological underpinnings and envision a more equitable outlook.

Art by Amelia Koen.

The global spread of Western higher education within the past few decades has been one of the English-speaking-world’s greatest cultural successes. However, this success is founded upon cultivating generations of international students, whether taught overseas or back home, who contemplate a diet of primarily Anglo-American history, ideology and arguably, experience. A critical interrogation of this phenomenon through the perspectives of its recipients is thus timely in order to examine its colonial underpinnings and envision a better model of international education.  

First impressions on the international student’s journey 

As we sat down for a conversation, SRC Ethnocultural Officer Anya Doan began to reflect on why she chose to travel south from Vietnam to Australia to pursue a degree. 

“I like the way that degrees are structured here; it seemed very specialised. Under a Bachelor of Arts, there are a lot of options to choose from,“ Doan said. 

For her, the key appeal of an Australian education lies in its liberal structure; it allows for experimentation with niche topics otherwise considered redundant within the rigid syllabus inherited as a vestige of French colonialism back home.  

“My family really wanted to move here to get permanent residency, so we all came here together. [My parents] were encouraging me to try something new.” 

Having attended ABC International School (ABCIS) since she was eight, Anya’s experience is firmly embedded within the fabric of the multicultural environment in which she spent her formative years in. Such an education does not come cheap, with ABCIS charging $36,000 a year for senior students. 

These sentiments were shared by Vanshika Singhgupta, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Science (Biological Design & Neuroscience). She attended a school providing the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program in India. 

Unlike Doan, Singhgupta is contemplating a career back home in STEM and formed a favourable first impression of Sydney University from the institution’s high positions on global university rankings. 

“I looked at the top few universities in the world to study Life Sciences and Sydney was at the top,” said Singhgupta as she reflects on her journey to Australia. “There’s a lot more variety in terms of subjects offered here because science back home is just divided into Engineering and Medicine.” 

Discourse surrounding international education typically focuses on the English-speaking world’s dominance in the sector. Within the past few decades alone, international education has transformed and spread far beyond its past confines, with an exponential rise in the popularity of curricula such as the International Baccalaureate. 

However, these conversations often fail to question why an English-medium education is so highly sought after. This dominance of the Anglo-American values in international curricula is attributed to the English language’s powerful status as the lingua franca of the modern world. 

This logic applies for Doan and Singhgupta, who both saw the language as a ticket to a “better life abroad”. Singhgupta, however, went further and described the English language’s ability to bridge differences between India’s social divisions. 

“The North has traditionally been dominated by Hindi and the South has a different script. They’ve got a different script altogether,” Singhgupta explains

“There’s been this divide especially when it comes to Hindi because it’s seen as the language of the North so that’s why we’ve never been able to agree on a national language and English is kind of the bridge there.” 

Similarly, UNSW SRC President and Oman international student Nayonika Bhattacharya ventures further to describe the English language – one of India’s official languages – as one that “opens doors to a lot of opportunities”, not only for herself but her family. Implicit within these discussions was a sense that English represented a “better life” that enabled a transition, temporary or otherwise, from the Global South to the North. 

Familial expectations thus form a key motivator in these students’ pathway to Australia, with each student fully aware of the immense gravity of their parents’ financial investment. Doan’s aspires towards permanent residency, while Singhgupta and Bhattacharya wish to bring a return on her family’s investment. 

“What that means to me is making sure that I give my parents a good life after this and that I give back to the community,” Bhattacharya told Honi knowing that upon graduation, she will have the ability and responsibility of giving opportunities to others. 

Most international students’ optimistic first impressions and journey towards Australia, then, is a response to a confluence between an intensely pragmatic view of higher education, a belief that the English-speaking world brings superior opportunities and great familial expectations.

Social inclusion, adjusting to life overseas and grasping rights 

Though Doan, Singhgupta and Bhattacharya each have a different story, each also acknowledges the relative privilege they hail from. As things stand, an Australian education does not come cheap, and that’s before one stops to consider the steep cost of living in major cities. These factors act as a major gatekeeper to large swathes of talented students. 

Other than being a gatekeeper, this also produces a paradox. Exorbitant fees prescribed by international schools across the Global South and Australian universities also feeds into the myth that all international students are wealthy. Media portrayals of international students that highlight the wealthy few are taken to represent the community, glissading over the sacrifices that families make to afford an overseas education for their children.  

Meanwhile, workplace and other rights remain a major concern for the international student community. In 2020, a report by the Migrant Justice Institute, International Students and Wage Theft in Australia found that some 65 per cent were remunerated below the minimum casual hourly wage, with a substantial minority of students being paid half that amount. Of these, Chinese students fared worst, with a staggering 83 per cent being paid below the statutory minimum wage. 

Singhgupta thought that the international student community was “more aware of [our] rights”. Her estimate is borne out in the same report, with approximately 84% of students aware of workplace award entitlements. However, where difficulties begin to manifest lies in students’ reluctance to disclose their precarious circumstances out of a fear for their visa status.   

In our conversation, Bhattacharya explains that rights, in the international student context, are not perceived as an “absolute concept”. Rather, each right is contingent upon the enjoyment of another. 

Comparing this matrix of rights to a distant friend that is never there, she said: “It’s a difficult concept because you are too busy worrying about so many things in life such as the education I receive, or whether I am making the most out of it. 

“Everything that glitters is fool’s gold at the moment.”, treading cautiously against an overly optimistic first impression whilst being frank on the challenges facing international students.      

For Bhattacharya and Singhgupta, the reason for this phenomenon rests on the independent nature of international education and the inability to access immediate family support networks available to their domestic peers.

“You don’t have the support network to have comfortable things because you don’t have your family around. You’re essentially doing life by yourself. We all are trying to create opportunities for [ourselves],” said Bhattacharya.

Singhgupta also highlighted safety issues from the relative isolation the community faces, citing an incident near the University of Sydney Quadrangle where an international student friend’s safety was nearly compromised by a stalker.

“I’ve been relatively safe in the confines of this College [Sancta Sophia College] that I’m staying at but there have been quite a few racist encounters that I’ve had, and I think that the response has not been adequate,” she said.

“It’s one of those things that have been hushed under the carpet” 

For Singhgupta, USyd’s abnormally large student population, highly bureaucratic crisis response, combined with difficulty accessing nearby relatives creates a perfect storm of conditions that hinders the academic experience of the international student community. Such issues are further compounded by language barriers, which means that she and her peers must invest extra effort to acclimatise to the university social scene. 

Critiquing the Anglocentric agenda of international education

Across the Global South and particularly Southeast Asia, which largely escaped the Global Financial Crisis’ (GFC) relatively unscathed, international schools and universities are in high demand. The former are arguably as lucrative as their tertiary counterparts. As of 2018, China’s international schools averaged a staggering $46,000 in tuition fees, whilst Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia all registered above $20,000 per annum.   

In response to these revelations, Doan attributes the staggering inequalities to “a fetishisation of American culture and American exceptionalism [in Vietnam]”, borne out of post-Doi Moi confidence following economically liberal reforms implemented in 1986 in the country. 

“In entertainment, tourism and things such as Disneyland are deemed shiny and American, which is considered good. Education is not the first avenue that we are following.”  

One example that Doan cited was Vietnam’s new VinUniversity, an institution founded by VinGroup,  a multi-billion dollar conglomerate in the mould of state-sponsored South Korean chaebols like Samsung or Lotte. It’s an institution whose capitalist foundation and $48,000 tuition fees makes it barely distinguishable from private American universities. The only difference is the lone Marxist-Leninist Youth Club aligned with the governing Vietnamese Communist Party established just last month. 

She points to VinUniversity’s lavish furnishings as emblematic of a tectonic shift towards American wealth in her country. Its facade takes cues from Moscow State University’s iconic tower, whilst its entrance is lined with statues of white men. Meanwhile, the institution takes a statue of Apollo to symbolise “all knowledge”. 

One could argue that the rise of these institutions signifies an often less acknowledged, paradoxical phenomenon where Western ideology is actively celebrated and emulated in education. This is in contrast to postcolonial activist movements in wealthier countries. 

Others venture further, arguing that Anglo-American colonialism is deeply entrenched within contemporary international education.For instance, the Organisation to Decolonise International Schools (ODIS) criticised IB Schools’ inadequate history curriculum where national histories are frequently ignored in favour of the organisation’s focus on the global scale. In a petition to IB Schools and the organisation’s Geneva headquarters, ODIS argued that international school curricula fail to “emphasize the inclusion of BIPOC histories and contributions to society nor the roots of racism and white supremacy in its [curricula]”. 

On this point, Doan, Singhgupta and Bhattacharya, were unanimous in observing that international education, whether back home or in Australia, favoured a Western interpretation as opposed to a postcolonial vision of education. 

Yet, the path to interrogate the influence of Western heritage faces significant ideological hurdles. Bhattacharya posited that the international student’s journey, by virtue of its deliberate nature and investment, often encourages students to adopt the logic of a liberal education. 

Common amongst the three’s perspective is an unease about the vagueness in which the term “liberal education” is deployed as a key appeal. At the core of the Anglocentric model of modern international education lies a that exerts a powerful sway upon its recipients that disguises colonial presumptions under the guise of choice.  

“It comes at the expense of a bargain of power where you sort of shed a bit of your cultural identity for adoption into Western ideology,” Bhattacharya said, noting that such an education necessitates negotiations between one’s home culture and the purportedly meritocratic ideals embellished in liberalism.  

“I think liberal education is such a dubious term because I feel like it means something. But are you truly liberal if all you’re thinking comes from a Western perspective?” 

Envisioning a more equitable international education 

Despite their differences, Singhgupta, Doan and Bhattacharya ground their vision for postcolonial and accessible international education in addressing economic disparities and critically examining international curriculums’ laissez-faire relationship with the national history of host countries and the Global South.

According to Bhattacharya, challenging the status quo demands collective recognition that international education as it stands replicates patterns of economic inequalities seen in the Australian system and beyond. Comparing the sector’s stratospheric fees to Sydney’s highly stratified system, Bhattacharya views expensive private institutions in the Global South as an affront to “public schools struggling without resources”. 

As of 2022, a standard Arts degree at Sydney University runs for $45,000 per year for international students, whilst the equivalent in Vietnam National University (Hanoi) fluctuates between $660 to $2,000, depending on the stream chosen. 

“All of these schools run the risk of furthering economic disparities between young people,” Bhattacharya warns, highlighting enormous hurdles facing low socioeconomic-status students, the vast majority of whom cannot access an international education without financial sacrifice or a full scholarship.

Expensive international schools and elite universities are thus indispensable to an ecosystem of globalised, highly mobile white-collar professionals that perpetuates a vicious cycle of inequality in their host countries. As such, critics of transnational education like Professor Jeong-eun Ree characterise this phenomenon as a “new imperialism”. 

United by a common lingua franca in English and being cross-or-Third Culture Kids, international student alumni tend towards forming a hierarchy split along socio-economic lines. Those on the wealthier end often go onto corporate careers in their home or host country, with those returning home sometimes taking over the family business. For others hailing from more humble beginnings, the individual must bear the financial struggles of an international education, which mirrors patterns of inequality seen in Australia. 

As a solution, Singhgupta and Doan point out that a critical solution to these challenges lies in activist demands for affordable education and strong funding for tertiary institutions by the Federal Government. 

“I think pay parity is a big thing,” Singhgupta said, when asked about the need to equalise fees between international and domestic students for a more accessible international education.

“We will be able to accommodate more students who come from different financial backgrounds. It is right in terms of not leaving people with a debilitating debt.” 

For both Singhgupta and Doan, an affordable international education will recalibrate expectations and the mission of international schools and universities away from viewing international students primarily as an income stream, and towards genuine inclusion. 

Doan goes further, arguing that exorbitant fees have led to “misguided priorities” from both tertiary institutions and students by encouraging the proliferation of questionable reputation-based university rankings. This often happens concurrently with the undermining of the nuts and bolts of supporting teaching and student experience by universities. 

Additionally, each agreed that cultural changes were also necessary to complement fee reductions. Such changes would empower their home countries’ educational capacity rather than increasing reliance on Anglocentric knowledge.  

“We should steer away from [a] Western model of education. Not just like America, not just like Singapore; we should stop thinking that Western is automatically better,” Doan said, lamenting on the prevailing tide of opinion back home.

“I think the way a lot of Vietnamese people think about this is: “Oh it’s so great because it’s not Vietnamese. We should stop thinking like that.” 

Speaking on such cultural reforms, Bhattacharya also insisted that those on the wealthier end must acknowledge the “traditional expression” of their home beyond festivities and the tokenistic to include others back home in lower socio-economic backgrounds. 

In her view, the task involves a balancing act between one’s cultural upbringing and the ideological influence present in her studies. “It’s a fine line maintaining that duality. I’m Indian but I’m also getting an international education,” Bhattacharya said.

For the three, addressing these economic and cultural challenges would go a long way to address concerns about a talent brain drain in Global South countries. Instead of perpetuating an idealisation of Western institutions as the apex of knowledge, the goal should be encouraging a return of aspirations in such countries. 

Encapsulating the time and monetary investments that she, Doan, Singhgupta, and all international students have contributed, Bhattacharya is optimistic about the prospect of change. She hopes that the community will continue to be bold in their advocacy.  

“I think the future for international education is looking very purpose-driven. The person being educated is going to be more empowered, more aware and a lot more brazen,” she said.

“I am putting my blood, sweat and tears into receiving this so I think [universities] should be making an effort as well.” 

Disclaimer: Khanh Tran is an alumni of International School Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC).