Challenges as a postgraduate international student (in Australia)

When it comes to education, Australia is one of the most popular destinations for international students. This is projected in the significant increase in the population of international students in Australia over the last few years. According to the Australian Government, in 2018, universities and other education sectors in Australia enrolled around 876,000 international students in different levels growing by 10% from 2017 to 2018, as shown in the figure below.

Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

Language barriers  

Most of the international students are not confident of their English language skills, which leads to difficulties in some aspects of communication with their peers, educators or other local Australians. This affects students in terms of coping with the demands of academic studies and the ability to develop social skills. What makes it harder for international students is that most Australians speak the Aussie accent, which is fast, and the use of slangs is commonplace. This eventually makes the students lose confidence and hesitant to speak up to discuss their problems.

One of the quality controls is the introduction of strict English language requirements for almost every course in Australia. This is one way of ensuring that international students have every chance of success in written, comprehension and verbal communications. To meet the language requirements of my PhD course, I was required to score at least 6.5 in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) academic test with no band less than 6. This to ensure that I have the ability to comprehend, speak, and write in English.

Culture Shock 

Hala Abdelkader, PhD student, Deakin University and DELH

Cultural differences are unique to every individual student depending on where he/she come from. Coming from Egypt, I have experienced some cultural differences that I am still familiarising myself with. Firstly, the informalities; it is pretty common in Australia to address your superior or anyone by their first name only without including their academic titles. Back in my home country, it can be perceived as a lack of respect however in Australia, it is normal.  Secondly, the majority of retail stores and services close early around 5 pm except for grocery stores, which remains open a little later into the evening.  This quite shocking compared to the almost 24 hours operation of stores in Egypt. Finally, sport is another aspect that I miss in my new lifestyle. I am a huge fan of soccer and watching football games. Although there is a professional football league in Australia known as the ‘A-League’, they are a small singular league with shorter playing season with no promotion and relegation of teams. Here in Australia, the most popular sport is the Australian Rules Football (AFL) or ‘Footy’ which looks very enthusiastic but I don’t understand any of its rules.

International students are long-term visitors to Australia who are expected to settle and engage actively with their local peers. Meaningful social engagement also promotes academic learning and contributes to the development of a well-rounded individual. However, a common risk factor for culture shock is social exclusion. The feeling of social exclusion develops due to declining participation, solidarity, and access. Therefore, ensuring the social inclusivity of international students with the wider Australian community has been of great interest to Australian universities. For instance, the Deakin University Student Association (DUSA) is regularly organising events and encouraging international students to engage in activities to support inclusivity and diversity such as the U-Belong week.

Financial Hardship

Australia is amongst the top countries in terms of living standards worldwide. This imposes a financial burden on international students who are expected to cover their own universities’ tuition fees, accommodation and living expenses such as transportation, food, utility bills, etc. These financial difficulties could be caused by their poor money management or lack of support from parents. The foreign exchange rate between the currency of the students’ home country and the Australian dollar can also fluctuate significantly. As such, a lot of international (and domestic students) work while juggling their studies to ease some of the financial pressure they face. However it can be a tough balance at a low return as the student visa requirements mandated that the maximum they can work is 20 hours per week during the semester. Furthermore, finding a part-time or casual job is not easy as there is significant competition.

The financial challenges for international students have also increased dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are considered one of the most affected categories of residents in Australia. Many of them lost their local source of income, cannot afford their living expenses or forced to return to their home countries. Their families overseas may have also been affected and hence cannot offer enough support for them.

The good news is the tremendous support that is being offered by universities in Australia. For instance, Deakin University has a COVID-19 financial assistance scheme to help students navigate through this tough time. The assistance scheme included up to $25 million targeted support for international students. It offers eligible students fee extensions in addition to cash payments of up to AUD1,100 to offset their basic expenses.

Academic Work

The differences between education systems in Australia and the home country of international students can pose another challenge. Here in Australia, the education system is based on group work, presentations, communication, and research skills. Also, some international students may find that interaction with tutors can be challenging possibly because of the language and cultural barriers. Therefore international students often require extracurricular assistance to accelerate their resilience, possibly through university offered workshops and programs.

My PhD project aims at bridging the gap between machine learning and software engineering disciplines to enable more robust software systems. In particular, I am investigating approaches to evaluate the robustness of machine learning models and expose their internals in a meaningful way for software engineers. This is an exciting and timely research topic as it intersects two broad research fields and captures the interest of software organisations worldwide.

The support and guidance that I am getting from my supervisors is exceptional and far exceeded my expectations. They have expertise in both fields which offers a great advantage to my PhD project. Furthermore, having regular meetings to discuss my progress ensures high levels of productivity especially during this pandemic.

Twelves Apostles at the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia


Despite all of this, Australia remains one of the best places in the world for further studies. All the universities have a full range of support services to ensure the safety and well-being of all the students. These services include housing, counselling, health, financial advice and other programs. For instance, as an international PhD student at the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living, and the Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute (A2I2) at Deakin University, I have been offered a wide range of support services to ensure that I am coping well with the current COVID-19 situation and my study is going as planned.


Written by:
Hala Abdelkader
ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living PhD scholarship recipient
Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute (A2I2), Deakin University
NB: The author reserves the right to showcase/publish this blog piece elsewhere and/or in a different medium.

Editorial review by:
Dr Felix Tan, Chief Investigator
Kevin Hoon, Hub Manager