PhD Thesis


Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Queensland School of Education


International students make up a significant proportion of the growing populations residing in central business districts (CBD) of Australia’s major cities at any given time. Yet they remain largely on the discursive edges of urban planning processes and perhaps even the ‘business’ of international education. This may be so because international student cohorts are transient, and have thus been politically decentred and under-recognised in terms of their impact on cultural, economic, political and social formations of urban spaces. This positioning is reflected in research into international student experience, which tends towards large quantitative studies, for example to evaluate levels of satisfaction, explorations of international students as cultural others, their experience as transient migrants in terms of social integration and practical matters such as their use of transnational communications. While these studies provide valuable insights into international student populations, this study suggests their agency is underestimated in its potential influence on institutional practices in the city context. If this is so, there is a case for discursively repositioning international students in the university precincts and cities in which they spend most of their time and where they engage in educational, economic, political, social and community activity.

The purpose of this study was, therefore, to bring the lives of international students into the centre of current international education discourse within a historical and social context in which to situate their experience and described the part they played in Melbourne’s CBD, particularly in the period between 2000-2010. A broad theoretical framework draws on work from a number of researchers, particularly Steven Vertovec, Saskia Sassen, Doreen Massey and Michael Peter Smith, whose contributions have redefined the discourses in globalisation, transnationalism, urban sociology, place/space and cultural studies.

The research used a range of data sources to examine the transnational activities of international students and relationships between place, space and agency. It considered how these activities and relationships have transformed Melbourne’s social and cultural fabric, affected city governance and influenced trends in international student management. On the basis of the data collected, the research privileged the agency of international students¾and the urban context¾by exploring experiences in relation to specific events, activities and policy developments in the Melbourne CBD and its education precinct. The framing research question asks: What contributions have international students made to the process of transnationalisation in the city of Melbourne and its education precinct since 2000?

By using Ien Ang’s self-reflexive process in interviews and focus groups the methodological approach sought to represent the voices of students and to create common discursive ground to explore their sense of place, aspirations and their agentive capacities.

A total of forty-four individuals provided data for this study. These included eighteen international students currently enrolled in universities in Melbourne, and six former students. Twenty-one key informants, who have had direct contact with international students were either currently employed or had recently been employed by universities in Melbourne, the City of Melbourne or were involved in community groups and commercial organisations were also interviewed. The data gathered from these non-student key informants revealed historical, institutional and social factors that facilitate international students’ social interactions, their disposition and capacity to influence social and political change.

The study found that international student cohorts have had a significant effect upon the previously established multicultural nature of the City’s centre. In a relatively short period, City government, university policy, modes of knowledge transfer and community engagement have been fundamentally altered by the mobility, flows and transnational activity of the international student population. There is a connection between international students’ personal motivation, identity formation and social activity and the community engagement practices of the City of Melbourne, including infrastructure development and strategic planning. There are indications of productive relationships between organisational groups, including student representative associations.

The research findings contribute to an understanding of the impact of international students in relation to future community building and the relationship of that community with universities in the educational precinct and in the global city.

The thesis is available for download at the University of Queensland’s library website here.