Colonial institutions: postcolonial identities: the experiences of international students from the Indian subcontinent at an Australian university.

Doctoral Studies Completed Theses - 2009 Archive

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Harshi Gunawardena

PhD thesis, conferred 2009

International students in Australian universities encounter a plethora of misadventures related to cultural adjustment, language use, and academic issues. Much of the previous research attributes these difficulties to 'cultural differences'. However, the way that culture impacts on the experiences of international students remains unexplored. This lack may be due to two major reasons: first, the vast majority of the previous research treats the entire international cohort as a homogeneous group without investigating how diverse cultural backgrounds impact on the kinds of experiences they undergo and; second, the kinds of research methods used to investigate both 'culture' and student 'experiences' in Australian universities rely on quantitative surveys that leave little or no room for exploring new issues. By focusing upon one cultural group only and proposing culture-sensitive theoretical framework and research tools, this thesis explores the cultural issues that emerge in the experiences of international students from the Indian subcontinent in their transition into an Australian university.

The theoretical framework used in this thesis is postcolonial theory, which provides an instrument to understand the social, cultural and historical context of the experiences of students from the Indian subcontinent. Such an understanding takes into account the differences between pedagogic systems, cultures, as well as the vast disparities in economic terms between the developed and the developing countries in the world.

This thesis also advances an alternative methodological approach to previous methods used to research international student 'experiences'. Using narratives, focus groups, and observations, this research provides a forum that gives 'voice' to students in ways previously unexplored in this area. The techniques also promote a style of negotiating meaning, which addresses claims by postcolonial theorists that postcolonial identities are marginalised in the processes of metropolitan knowledge production.

The results of this research indicate that there is a need to understand student experiences in ways that are culturally sensitive, both in terms of the methodologies used to study international students' experiences, and in terms of the theories used to contextualise and make meaning of those experiences for pedagogical purposes. The present thesis provides a detailed exploration of the experiences of international students from the Indian subcontinent and revealed very different findings to previous research. The findings also indicate the need for different marketing strategies in relation to different cultural and demographic groups within the international cohort and the need to apply similar techniques to other cultural groups within the international cohort.

Supervisor: Dr Nigel Bagnall