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International Students Exhibition

This exhibition consists of information on the history of international students at the New South Wales University of Technology / University of New South Wales. For more information and photographs of international students at the university, please contact the Archives.

The Beginnings

International students have been a part of Australian universities since the early twentieth century. It was not, however, until after the Second World War that these numbers became significant - and this fortuitously coincided with the foundation of this university as the New South Wales University of Technology (NSWUT) in 1949, re-named the University of New South Wales in 1958.

The name of the first student to come from overseas for the purpose of undertaking studies at this university is unclear. The earliest confirmed year for overseas students enrolled at NSWUT that can be found amongst the records in UNSW Archives is 1950, including one Thai Electrical Engineering student, Arsh Boongrapu, whose education was sponsored by his home government. While studying at the university, he won a major prize in the lottery and did not return the following year.

Norman Emslie & Arsh Boongrapu, Tour of Burrinjuck Dam, 1950.
(Norman Emslie, UNSW Archives CN1029)
Arsh’s classmate, Norman Emslie, later recalled “Arsh invited [fellow student Jim Jacobs] to share the price of the [lottery] ticket. Jim thought that if he did he would not have enough money for a schooner of beer. Arsh went alone and won first prize - £33,000. Jim reckoned that that was the most expensive beer he had ever bought!”

Since in its early years, the university's enrolment data did not differentiate students by the origin of their address, but rather by course and whether the student was full or part time, it is possible that the first overseas student to study at NSWUT may have dated back even earlier. If this is the case, however, they have not been highlighted in the record as an international student - since, as Vice-Chancellor Professor Philip Baxter was to note in 1958, "At the New South Wales University of Technology, we do not normally make any distinctions of nationality. Students are students, whether born in Australia or elsewhere".

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Colombo Plan Students

The establishment of the Colombo Plan scheme was one means by which the numbers of overseas students began to grow. Conceived at a meeting of British Commonwealth Foreign Ministers in Colombo in January 1950, the scheme was established to encourage the economic and social development of South East Asian and Pacific countries. One form of assistance given was for the donor countries to provide technical training to people from nations covered by the scheme, who would then return home to put their knowledge to use within their community. When the scheme began in 1951, Australia, as one of these donor countries, provided this training within its educational facilities, including universities.

The first intake of Colombo Plan students at NSWUT was in 1952, with twelve students studying at this university who were "sponsored by the Commonwealth as part of the group of Technical Aid to South East Asia students".

Poernomo, an Indonesian Colombo Plan Food Technology student, with Associate Professor F. H. Reuter, 1954.
(Pix, UNSW Archives CN682/6)
Malik Sher Khan & Sher Ahmad Khan, Pakistani Colombo Plan Food Technology students, 1954.
(Pix, UNSW Archives CN682/19)
In 1953 the university had its first intake into a two year graduate Food Technology course that had been specifically developed for Colombo Plan students.  Special Commonwealth government funding was provided to the university for this purpose by the Department of External Affairs.

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Privately Funded International Students

Although it may be the most well-known, the Colombo Plan scheme was not the only or even the largest source of international students for Australian universities. For instance, while there may have been twelve Colombo Plan students at NSWUT in 1952, the total number of overseas students at NSWUT that same year was twenty-six. By 1960 numbers of overseas students at the university had risen to a total of 468, which included 97 sponsored under the Colombo Plan scheme.

While there were other sponsorship schemes, aside from the Colombo Plan, that brought university students to Australia, it was privately funded international students who made up by far the greatest numbers of overseas students. In the 1950s and 1960s these students generally paid the same fees and obtained entry to universities in a similar way to their Australian counterparts.

Singaporean student Thomas Woon Chin Lee (right) with fellow Civil Engineering student Geoffrey Wheeler on graduation day in front of the Old Main Building, 14 April 1956. 
(Thomas Woon Chin Lee, UNSW Archives 95A77/2)
Electrical Engineering Singaporean student Jimmy Koh, participating in Foundation Day, 1961. 
(Jimmy Koh, UNSW Archives 00A107)

The expansion of private international students occurred at a similar time as the introduction of the Colombo Plan, as Asian students became aware of the proximity and quality of education available in Australia, particularly as European and American universities became overcrowded in the post-war years.

For many years, however, privately funded international students did not receive the same interest in terms of policy or assistance from the government.

On 22 November 1962, Sheila Romley of the School of Economics highlighted this situation in a letter to UNSW’s University News, where she encouraged the government to provide similar services to private students as were given to those under the Colombo Plan.

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Australian Organisations' Coordinating Committee for Overseas Students (AOCCOS)

One voluntary body that had emerged to assist overseas students was the Australian Organisations' Coordinating Committee for Overseas Students (AOCCOS). AOCCOS was formed in 1956 and included representatives of approximately thirty organisations interested in the welfare of overseas students, such as Rotary, Apex and Lions clubs. AOCCOS' object was "to co-ordinate the work of all organisations interested in the fields of reception, accommodation, hospitality, recreation, generally well-being and the introduction into community life of overseas students during their stay in New South Wales". Although it aided all students from overseas, much of its work was directed towards privately funded international students.

AOCCOS provided a welcome desk at the airport during December and January, to meet new arrivals of overseas students and take them to their accommodation where necessary.

UNSW students Terry Thomas and Lyn Moore manning the AOCCOS Overseas Student Centre desk at Sydney Airport, January 1969. 
(Terry O'Brien, UNSW Archives 97A248)
Terry O'Brien (nee Thomas) recalls that "as members of AOCCOS we were assigned one week of greeting and introduction to Sydney.  After one day of training, we hosted the arrival desk where we met students arriving on three to four year study programs at UNSW...The next four days were spent taking them around Sydney and making them use public transport, Australian currency and meeting them at various tourist locations".

AOCCOS also linked overseas students with Australian families who wished to provide accommodation, as well as a Home Host Scheme, where a student was not directly housed within an Australian household, but rather afforded a connection with an Australian family who would assist with the type of advice and interaction that students would ordinarily seek from their own families back home.

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Overseas Students Association (OSA)

By 1952 there were sufficient numbers of international students at NSWUT for an Overseas Students Association (OSA) to be established. With its prime aim "to promote closer cultural ties, friendship and understanding between students from overseas and the people of Australia", membership of the OSA was not restricted to overseas students alone.

Overseas Students Association's Welcome to New Students, 1954.
(UNSW Archives CN397)

Classing itself as "the most active social and cultural club in the university" and claiming that its "membership list reads like a United Nations roll call", the association not only assisted with the practicalities of helping overseas students find accommodation, it also organised social outings, trips and educational addresses.

The first president of the OSA, Ali Asgar, a student from Fiji, became president of the Students' Union in 1955 - the first overseas student to hold this position at NSWUT.

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International Students - 1960s - 1980s

By 1962 overseas students represented approximately six percent of the total students at UNSW. The possibility of UNSW establishing quotas on overseas students was flagged, but dismissed, as it was considered that the university could only properly select students on academic grounds and that overseas students added much to the life of the university.

Some of the first residents of UNSW's International House donned their native costumes on the occasion of the official opening, 14 June 1968.
(l-r) Elizabeth Lougonov, Indarto Jusuf, Sathis Gooneratne, Dean Achmad, Sheila Hsu, Yuki Akimoto, Rizal Nasution, Maulana Pranato, Narita Kiyoshi, Amy Ho, Rani Siyali.
(Photographer: Allan West, UNSW Archives CN486/1/7A) 

It was only in the 1980s that any kind of overseas student quotas were introduced at UNSW - and these were just in a select number of courses following what was considered to be an overwhelming demand for places. This was in contrast to some other Australian universities, which imposed tight overseas student quotas on entry within most or all of their faculties from the 1960s.

UNSW's differing philosophy on this issue would have significant impact, as by 1983 the proportion of overseas students within the total student population was 13.4 percent - the highest of any Australian university and encompassing almost a quarter of the total number of overseas university students then resident in Australia.

Dr James Kirumba after graduating from the Faculty of Medicine, 4 February 1970.
(Photographer: Allan West, UNSW Archives CN486/2/15/22) 
In 1963 UNSW students devoted the money raised on Foundation Day to establish a Students' Union scholarship.  It was offered to students in Africa and won by James Kirumba, who started at UNSW the following year.

A limit of 10,000 overseas private students at Australian universities was, however, eventually brought in by the Australian government in 1973, which coincided with its decision to abolish fees for all university students, including those from overseas, from 1974.

Vietnamese Overseas Students Association (VOSA) serving Vietnamese dishes at an International Day outside the Roundhouse, early 1970s.
(Nhan Ly, UNSW Archives 98A72)
Hong Kong Students Society stand at Enrolment week, 1973.
(Dollings, UNSW Archives CN486/1/10/57)

From 1980 the government's overall quota on overseas students was replaced by a system of "guaranteed student approvals" - quotas based on the originating countries of students. At the same time an Overseas Student Charge - retained by the government - was introduced. Initially $1500 to $2500 per annum, it was intended to cover about a third of the total cost of a student's course.

In 1985 the government set a limit on the number of these subsidised overseas students a tertiary institution could enrol - 10% of the total student population and no more than 20% in one course. The government also initiated a new policy, which allowed educational institutions to enrol overseas students on a full fee paying basis - with money retained by the university - over and above a university's percentage limits.

In September 1987 UNSW Council approved in principle the admission of full-fee paying overseas students to some of the university's programs.

Malaysian Lee Eng Sim, pictured after her graduation ceremony, was the first woman to graduate from UNSW’s School of Electrical Engineering, 1 May 1969.
(Photographer: Allan West, UNSW Archives CN295/153)
UNSW's first female graduate in surveying was Rosilah Sani, from Singapore, pictured after her graduation ceremony with her niece, April 1983.
(Photographer: Charles McKeon, UNSW Archives CN1127/7)

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International Student Centre

Although international students had represented a good proportion of the total students at UNSW for some time, the university had not generally provided any services to cater for them specifically - instead following the ethos, as espoused by Baxter, that overseas students would not be treated any differently from other students. UNSW Counsellor Robert Hay was named the Counsellor for Overseas Students from 1971, but this appears to have been a largely unofficial title.

Staff of the International Student Centre, 1989.
(l-r) Bryan Burke, Betty Chow, Diane Hargans, Walter Fogarty, Lee Ley Ping.
(International Student Centre, UNSW Archives S1892/1)
Students in the International Student Centre, 1990.
(International Student Centre, UNSW Archives S1892/78)

Services for international students at UNSW began more significantly when Overseas Students' Adviser, Betty Chow, was appointed in 1988 within the Counselling and Careers Service. In 1989 an International Student Centre was established to provide support services for all students at UNSW and the tertiary preparation Foundation Studies course, run via Unisearch, also commenced.

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International Students - 1990s - 2000s

The introduction of full-fee paying overseas students was to become increasingly important to universities, particularly as it coincided with a gradual decrease in government funding for the tertiary sector. From 1990 it became government policy that all new international students pay the full cost of their education, though this could still be via a scholarship.

First UNSW overseas graduation in Kuala Lumpur, 10 June 1993.
(UNSW Archives 00A88)
The growing numbers of overseas students graduating from UNSW led to the university holding its first overseas graduation ceremony in Kuala Lumpur in 1993.  Its success ensured that in later years UNSW graduation ceremonies would also be held in other countries including Hong Kong, Singapore and China.

By 2000 the percentage of overseas students at UNSW had risen to approximately 21.5 percent and by 2010 international students represented a little over 25 percent of the total student population.

UNSW Thai and Singapore Students Associations' female basketball teams - Assembly of International Student Associations (AISA) Sports Event, c. 1995.
(International Student Centre, UNSW Archives S1892/407)
Valedictory Ceremony for UNSW international students, 2000.
(International Student Centre, UNSW Archives S1892/309)

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Looking Back

From 1999 - 2002, the Archives' Oral History Program undertook a number of oral history interviews in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand with international students who had attended this university during the 1950s - 1970s.

Malaysian Oral History interviewees, 1999.
(l-r) Fong Voon Seng, Ir Lee Wan Hoi, Dato' David Koh Eng Hooi.
(University Photographer, UNSW Archives 00A33/28)
(at centre) Oral history interviewee Rosalind Chan with fellow UNSW alumna, daughter Angela Chan, at the 2002 UNSW Hong Kong Alumni dinner.
(Rosalind Chan, UNSW Archives 02A129/12)

Although there were some cultural differences noted, such as the difficulties of sourcing Asian food in Sydney during this period, the recollections of these students about their time in Australia and at the university was generally very positive.

In some cases this has led to their children also coming to UNSW, which has ensured that the connection between the university and international students has continued with the next generation.

See the full list of the Archives' oral history interviews on our website at our Oral History page.

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