International students’ experiences with discrimination and racism during the coronavirus pandemic have been widely reported, particularly for students from China or East Asian countries. This has led to calls for universities to combat rising Sinophobia.
In recent months, international students have been increasingly politicised through framings of COVID-19 as a “China virus” and public assumptions about their role in its global spread. Such perspectives are often divided across political lines, building on the rhetoric of hostile environments for immigrants more broadly and political tensions with countries such as China.
In many popular host countries, this builds on growing public polarisation about the presence of international students in local communities. For example, a survey conducted by Universities UK showed nearly one-fifth (19%) of the public wished for universities to recruit fewer international students. In Australia, 46% of the public felt that ‘universities should be educating fewer foreign students and more domestic students’ in a survey conducted by Australian National University.
Such perceptions trickle down to students’ experiences and should raise alarms for the universities that support them.
Given the growing evidence of international students’ recent experiences with discrimination and racism, we questioned whether public opinion was similarly divided in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
To explore this, we undertook an analysis of more than 6,500 public posts made on Twitter about international students, made globally between January and April 2020. The resulting report – Global depictions of international students in a time of crisis – describes polarising public narratives about international students that have shifted over time.
Stereotyping and shunning of international students
In our initial data collection period (January – February 2020), online posts about international students overwhelmingly focused on stereotyping and shunning. In the early weeks of the pandemic, stereotypes of international students as ‘different’ from home students were dominant, including assumptions about their affluence, clothing or appearance and behaviours.
As COVID increasingly dominated the world news, we found persistent assumptions about international students as disease carriers, regardless of their travel histories or prior exposure to the virus. Posts in this period highlighted a fear of catching COVID from international students and avoidance of them in classrooms, on campus, and, more prevalently, in wider public spaces.
We also identified many posts describing witnessed harassment and racism towards international students. These included micro-aggressions in classrooms, physical avoidance on campus and in public, and, more rarely, verbal confrontations.
Together, our findings showed disturbing trends of witnessed discrimination in the immediate aftermath of COVID, spurred by fear and shunning by their peers and the general public.
Empathy and support for international students
Public perceptions of international students showed a sudden and stark shift in March 2020, following university campus closures in many countries. During this period, there was an outpouring of support for international students and empathy for their experiences.
A key theme in this period was a condemnation of universities for their perceived lack of support for international students. Particular points of contention included sudden closures of student housing and online provisions that were deemed unfair for students in international time zones.
This shift in perceptions highlights the growing polarisation in public opinion about international students. It also demonstrates that, while support for them exists, in this case it was primarily reactive rather than proactive.
What can universities do?
Our findings outline disturbing trends in discrimination and racism that must be dealt with urgently by universities in the immediate aftermath of COVID and in the longer term. While this list is certainly not exhaustive, we provide the following suggestions for ongoing social support for and inclusion of international students:
• Developing and supporting faculty roles around workload allocation for anti-racism initiatives that include international students;
• Inclusion of international student representatives on equality and diversity committees;
• Staff training and reflection to identify and act on micro-aggressions witnessed in the classroom and on campus;
• Co-creating with students culturally sensitive mechanisms for disclosing instances of discrimination and racism, with explicit policies for acting on disclosures;
• Continued funding and resources for international societies and campus events that promote intercultural engagement;
• Resources and commitment to internationalising the curriculum and support for teaching approaches that meaningfully include international students and promote intercultural interaction; and
• Engagement with wider communities and local businesses around issues that affect students’ experiences off-campus.
We argue that the internationalisation of higher education must not end simply with the recruitment of international students. Recognition is needed for the social experiences and inequalities that exist in our intercultural learning environments (either online or on-campus).
Specific to COVID, we must recognise that the experiences and perceptions of international students in this period of global crisis continue to affect students’ experiences and interactions. As our universities scramble to make preparations for a new academic year, these issues must not be forgotten or ignored.