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Does our city and culture really value international students?

Right now, there are roughly 622 000 international tertiary education students living in Australia, with another 90 000 studying Australian courses remotely.
Every year, thousands of young people from across the world flow through our city like counter-melodies in a jazz jam, easily overlooked or forgotten if you don’t listen out for them. They come from a dozen regions, particularly South Asia, East Asia and South America, influencing and drawing inspiration from Brisbane’s rhythms, but passing most of us on parallel streams.
They study at well-known universities like QUT, Griffith and UQ, at TAFE colleges and specialist institutions, and at dozens of smaller international colleges that vary greatly in terms of quality and legitimacy (and whose business model revolves exclusively around international students).
They pay big money to study here, and many work their arses off in precarious and exploitative jobs that most Australian workers aren’t desperate enough to sign up for.
One of the greatest missed opportunities of Graham Quirk’s time as Lord Mayor was the incentivisation and construction of massive new student accommodation apartment towers built in places like South Bank and Buranda.
Like many new highrises of the 2010s, they are ugly and resource-intensive, and the infrastructure charge discounts given to developers meant these companies reaped massive profits while contributing comparatively little towards the cost of public infrastructure and facilities.
But they were also a mistake because they cut off international students from the rest of our community.
At any given moment, between 60 000 and 90 000 international tertiary students are living in Brisbane, brimming with different ideas and ways of seeing the world. But those who end up staying in the cramped highrise apartments rented exclusively to international students will have comparatively few opportunities to build relationships with local residents.
These towers are grey and imposing. The rooms are as small as 15m2 and lack balconies, sunlight and natural airflow, so the students live in a world of fluoro lights and 24-hour air-conditioning.
Some of the larger towers have shared facilities like gyms, study rooms, and even basketball courts (which the developers plan to dig up and replace with more towers down the line). But these facilities are of course not accessible to the wider public, and non-resident guests are strongly discouraged.
Things could be quite different if these communal spaces were open to the wider public, and served as places for locals and international students to meet.
I don't want to over-generalise, as I realise people living in these towers would have a wide range of experiences and lifestyles. But having had conversations and personal relationships with quite a few international students, I’ve found several who’ve struggled with depression stemming from loneliness and social isolation, and many more who feel disappointed at having spent several years living in Brisbane, but not making any Brisbane friends.
Some are undergrads in their early twenties, living away from home for the first time and excited to soak up a new culture. Others are well-travelled postgraduate students, deep-thinkers with a wealth of knowledge and insights to share.
All of them have come to our city in part to get a better understanding of Australian culture and people, but the style of apartment housing they’re encouraged to live in offers few opportunities for incidental interactions with locals; they won’t get invited to many neighbourhood street parties or community events while living in a highrise where the only people in their building are other newcomers who also don’t know the city very well.
This experience contrasts starkly with the international students who find sharehouses with local housemates, or who board with owner-occupier Australian families renting out a spare room.
Having lived in those kinds of sharehouses, I’ve seen how they can function as an entry point for international students to connect into existing community networks. They get invited to house parties or beach trips or a local gig that would never advertise on the official noticeboards in the specialised student accommodation towers.
Even in standard residential apartment towers, international students would at least have a few more opportunities to meet local neighbours while riding the elevator or hanging out in the building’s communal spaces.
It seems a great shame to me that there are so many young people who live in our city for four, five, six years – paying big money for both accommodation and uni fees – but whose experience of the city might not differ much from that of a short-term tourist.
This is a loss for all of us as Brisbanites, who miss the chance to build meaningful connections with students from other parts of the world who are living just down the road from us.
When it comes to outcomes and experiences for their residents, the companies that operate these international student apartment towers do the bare minimum necessary to ensure more students keep signing up each year to pay outrageously high rents for shoebox apartments.
Profit, not student welfare, is the dominant imperative.
Fortunately, it wouldn’t take much to turn the former mayor’s mistake into another pathway for local residents to form meaningful relationships with people of different nationalities. A few policy tweaks here and there could transform these silos into cultural and intellectual powerhouses.
Perhaps the most important change would be to create more public spaces and third spaces - small parks, indoor sports courts, libraries, community centres, community gardens, low-cost live music venues and jamming spaces - where students who are feeling bored in their highly-surveilled shoebox apartments can come down to meet some locals.
But I think the city council could also put more staffing and resourcing into working with the tertiary institutions and accommodation providers to link international students into existing community networks and projects.
And of course, the council should play a bigger role in ensuring that the accommodation providers aren't ripping students off and that the units they're renting out are designed to be safe and comfortable. If the only tiny window of your tiny unit looks out at the concrete wall of a neighbouring tower five metres away, that's not good for your mental health.

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