Reflections on an Australian education

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Students at the Melbourne School of Design, the University of Melbourne

Students at the Melbourne School of Design, the University of Melbourne Image: University of Melbourne

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Students at the Melbourne School of Design, the University of Melbourne

Students at the Melbourne School of Design, the University of Melbourne Image: University of Melbourne

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Landscape architecture academics Jillian Walliss and Heike Rahmann from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University respectively caught up with a group of international landscape architecture students to learn about their experiences in Australia and why they chose to study here.

Across Australian universities, the media and the broader community we have grown accustomed to various attitudes toward Asian students. It is not uncommon to hear claims that these students are here to “buy a degree” to gain easy access to residency. Some academics begrudge the need to internationalize their curriculum, while others (frequently knowing no other language themselves) complain that the students have poor English skills. Formed by particular experiences, these views are often generalized to describe the wide spectrum of “the international (Asian) student.” Rarely do we spend time finding out why these diverse students choose to study in Australia and what they think of our cities, education system and attitudes, so we sat down and spoke with students from Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and China who are currently studying at RMIT University and the University of Melbourne. We began with discussing the dominance of Chinese students in these settings.

In some instances, Chinese students dominate particular programs of landscape architecture. The 300-point Master of Landscape Architecture at the University of Melbourne, for example, has a large proportion of Chinese students, while they also form a substantial cohort in RMIT University’s Master of Landscape Architecture. Most of the students we spoke with were not surprised by the many Chinese studying in Australia, reflective of the value Chinese place on international education and the sheer size of their population. Chinese students can be found studying in universities across the world: “When you are in Melbourne and Sydney you see many Chinese and Asian faces, but then when I was in Switzerland doing my undergraduate degree, 50 percent of students were Chinese,” said Bryan Choong (Singapore).

Many Chinese students are conscious of breaking from their cultural group; however, this is difficult when they first arrive at an Australian university. Jenny Yu (China) commented: “At the very beginning the Chinese students are shy – coming from different education, different culture, but over time [and] with more experience they become more confident.” Jackie Gu (China) stated: “I sit in the middle – I have [the] same cultural background as Chinese students but talk a lot with the local students.” They are very mindful of working hard on their English and trying to minimize the use of their native tongue. “We understand landscape architecture through English language, not Chinese.” Interesting language negotiations occur between the Asian students, who, on average, speak three languages. Bryan stated: “I rarely speak Mandarin to the mainland Chinese. They have to speak to me in English. They say I speak Mandarin like a robot reading from a textbook.”

For some students, entering classes with a large proportion of Chinese students can be confusing. Jacqueline Yu, who arrived in Australia from Hong Kong in 2017, commented: “At some point I thought I was studying in China. I am still struggling in second semester. Half of my friends are from China. I couldn’t find my identity. I try to get other experiences. I joined the choir. I try and meet [people from] more diverse backgrounds.” Jenny emphasized that cultural exchange does occur between domestic and international students. She stated: “As international students we really want to know the culture here and how we can know each other better. A lot of local students want to know what is happening in China – they want to know the cool things, the cities they can visit.”

So what exactly do these students appreciate about an Australian education system?

The students we interviewed were in agreement about the differences between education in Asia and Australia. All of their countries demand an extremely high work ethic, beginning in their earliest schooling. Extensive classes are required after a school day, which can start as early as 7 am, followed by hours of homework. Jackie commented: “High school in China is hard work … it is a habit to work hard.” But it is the extreme competitiveness that students find most difficult. Bryan commented: “It’s a cultural thing. In an Asian culture you had to beat everyone else – there was nothing about what you wanted, what is the best pathway for you. No – you have to compare with the benchmark.” Some students, such as Jess Li (Hong Kong) and Runjia Chen (China), left home at the age of sixteen for their high school education in Australia. Jess stated: “The education system in Hong Kong is much harsher than here. My parents think if they invest for us to study overseas we would have a better future than if we are stuck in Hong Kong, because there are way too many smart people in Hong Kong.” Others commented on the lack of discussion in Asian education, with Catherine Ooi (Malaysia) observing, “If [the] teacher says they are right, they are right.”

“The Australian education system is really open – it is really about yourself.” – Jenny, China

Entering the Australian university system presents a totally different educational experience, which for some takes a little time to get used to. Most challenging is the freedom to express yourself and be an individual. Jackie commented: “At the beginning we worry ‘cause it’s harder to understand, but gradually we learn how to manage our studies better. It’s a process – we find our way to learn in Australia.” Other students such as Bryan adapt more quickly: “I love the freedom of the Australian system – now we get to formulate our own opinions. This is what higher education should be.”

For Jenny, the Australian system offers “a way to understand me.” Having spent a semester on exchange at the University of Washington, Jenny draws an interesting distinction between studying in Australia and the USA. “In the US you have to work every week … very intense study … but in Australia you are more flexible. I like that way better as I have more flexibility to think about [designing] and [managing] my own time,” she stated. Similarly, Runjia, who completed a student exchange to Chicago, commented on the competition in the USA’s education system, observing that “Australian students are chilled.” She also highlighted the stronger industry focus of the USA design degrees, which place more emphasis on job readiness.

How, then, do the students view Australia?

The students identified something about Australia that differs from other Western countries. Nudcha Chayapurnh (Thailand) observes that “the older you get, you start to realize there is something refreshing about Australia – something familiar, something forward looking. I always felt Europe was old and less accepting and the States was where the crazy people live.” The students we interviewed feel very free here – a factor of our open democracy. This freedom extends into the use of language. For example, Runjia makes an interesting observation about how she expresses herself in English: “When I speak English I can be direct about my feelings and thoughts, [but when speaking in Mandarin] I need to be conscious about what other people are thinking and be really polite and careful with my language.”

“We are familiar, but we are not really familiar.” – Nudcha, Thailand

The students are often asked about racism in Australia, but said that anything experienced here is small in comparison to the political and racial difficulties encountered in their own countries. For instance, Catherine is of Chinese descent, and in her home country of Malaysia she is discriminated against by a government system that privileges Malay. Jess commented that the political difficulties of Hong Kong help her to appreciate Australian society: “When I am here and watch the news back home I feel so lucky that I had the chance to get out of that place.” It is because of the ongoing political problems and natural disasters in Asian countries that she believes Asians “are tougher when it comes to race.”

The students agreed that like Asian cities, Australian cities such as Melbourne and Sydney are extremely multicultural. Jess reminded us that “usually where there are lots of Asians it is an indicator of success.” When asked about being lumped into the generic category of “Asian” by Australians, it didn’t seem to concern them too much. Bryan commented: “It shows the person’s ignorance, but then I can’t tell a Spanish and an Italian man apart. We use the word ‘Westerners’ a lot.” Nudcha highlighted that it depends on context. “At work people say ni hao to me – but I am Thai. Grates on my nerve but doesn’t annoy me.”

America still looms large in many Asian imaginations. Jackie commented: “In my high school there is a class for those studying abroad. Out of fifty students, forty-eight would go to America, one to the UK, one to Australia.” Many students choose Australia because of existing connections such as relatives or the fact their parents studied here. Momoka Kawauchi (Japan) studied English at a Hobart high school for a year and returned for university after such a positive experience. For others like Jenny, Australia is their dream destination: “Everyone feels that America might have the best resources and education … I feel like I needed to go to the country that I really wanted to go to.” On the other hand, Runjia wanted to study in the USA but pragmatic decisions such as the timing of the semesters led her to Australia.

So in what way might an Asian sensibility (object, feeling or attitude) positively influence Australia?

Overwhelmingly, the students we interviewed agreed that an Asian sense of efficiency could positively influence Australia. Jacqueline and Jess agreed that Hong Kong pragmatism would be very useful here. Jacqueline stated: “Yes, Hong Kong is very money driven, but it is about trying to make things work.” Jess commented of Melbourne: “Every project just takes so long … democracy is so slow.” In a related sentiment, Nudcha suggested that Australians could learn to embrace change. “Some people in Melbourne are so hesitant about change – but it’s good to accept change before it crushes you. Don’t take so long to decide things … Think big.”

“[I’d like to see] Australia’s freedom of speech combined with Asian efficiency.” – Jess, Hong Kong

Bryan suggested that “any transport system from Singapore” could benefit Australia, while Catherine would like the more affordable house prices and the extraordinary language capacity of Malaysians. Momoka suggested a more complex understanding of aesthetics, such as Wabi-sabi , a Japanese concept centred on the appreciation of the imperfect. And all the students vigorously agreed that Australia “shuts down” too early – we are a long way from having 24-hour cities. Nothing can beat the ability of being able to get things done at any time of the day/night in an Asian city.

The students also shared their thoughts on Australian landscape architecture.

The students suggested that landscape architecture in Australia is yet to reach its potential. Nudcha commented: “Melbourne … Sydney have a few cool things but generally … it feels like we haven’t reached a moment in Australia yet – it’s getting there, but not yet.” Bryan commented on the way that “Singaporeans have got used to being a green nation,” citing projects such as the Parkroyal on Pickering as “awesome” examples of urban and nature intertwining. These projects are less visible in Australian cities. Jackie described the need to “bridge between academic research and practice” and also to develop new organizational models for design studios that encompass different fields. He is particularly interested in how “to bring the Chinese landscape to Australia – bridge the cultures.” Jenny observed that ideas of climate change are discussed a lot, “but we shouldn’t just be talking about what we should do.”

“Landscape architecture in Australia has a long way to go.” – Jackie, China

Many of the students we interviewed are already working in Australian landscape practices and can see themselves working either in Asia or Australia. There is no question that they offer fresh perspectives on design within our cities and the broader region and represent an enormous capacity in terms of expanded worldviews, life experiences and design aspirations. As Nudcha stated, “imagine what we could do together.” 

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