Monash University
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A critical analysis of contemporary Australian social inclusion discourse and its effects on international students: a case study of an Australian metropolitan local government council

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posted on 2017-03-01, 01:31 authored by Paltridge, Toby Rupert
Setting This study examines how the term ‘social inclusion’ is discursively constructed in Australia and the impact of this discourse on how international students’ needs, experiences and welfare are understood. International students enrolled in Australian tertiary institutions are very important to Australia. They are major contributors to both the Australian economy and cultural diversity. It is also argued that the presence of international students helps Australia forge links with its Asian neighbours. However, in recent years the serious issues experienced by some international students, predominantly occurring off campus, have received significant attention. This attention created discourses from media, government and education institutions about better ‘including’ international students into Australian society in order to improve their welfare. These inclusion discourses reflected the, now former, Federal Labor Government’s official social policy discourse of ‘social inclusion’. The Federal Government’s use of this discourse encouraged many lower tier governments, including some local governments, as well as other institutions, to also adopt it. However, ‘social inclusion’ is a contested concept with significant concerns about the implications of such discourses for those who are to be ‘included’. Research Questions This study therefore posed the following research questions: • What is the impact of ‘social inclusion’ discourses on understandings of international students’ needs, experiences and welfare? o How do key people/groups/institutions understand the terms ‘social inclusion’ and ‘social exclusion’? o What are the implications of these understandings for policy and social discourses on international students? Methodology To answer these questions a qualitative case study was conducted in a metropolitan local government Council in Melbourne that used social inclusion as a policy framework to inform its community development activities towards international students living within its municipality. Data were obtained from Council policy documents, as well as interviews with 15 key informants, including Council employees and elected members, as well as international student group representatives. The data were analysed using Fairclough’s (2009) dialectical-relational approach to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). CDA is a useful research approach for unpacking the effects of social inclusion discourses. It has the ability to critically examine discourses and identify the structural power relationships they enact and the ‘work’ they do. This is because CDA understands that reality is socially constructed by and through discourse and therefore discourse is both socially constitutive and socially shaped. That is, discourse and social reality are dialectically related. As a consequence, discourse both reflects existing social structures and has the capacity to either reproduce and/or transform them. Discourse is therefore a form of social action. This understanding enables the identification of relations of power and domination within the structure of society, and how these structures are discursively reinforced, challenged and transformed. The identification of such relations of power and the challenging of those considered unjust being the ultimate aim of CDA. Findings The Council policy framework was developed with the intention of facilitating international students’ social inclusion, a concept that had significant discursive appeal and was generally very popular with both Council employees and international student leaders. However, the social inclusion discourses drawn on and produced by the Council in order to do so actually reinforced existing unequal power relationships that are a major cause of international students’ marginalisation. The discourses achieved this by limiting international students’ agency, encouraging their conformity to mainstream norms and legitimising the existing social system by attempting to include international students into it. These findings are consistent with the critiques of the concept of social inclusion in the literature, that it is attractive but legitimises existing social structures and systems which actually cause marginalisation, denies diversity and draws attention away from inequalities amongst the included. It is contended that, based on this analysis, a primary reason that social inclusion discourses are so appealing for the mainstream is because they give the impression that serious action is being taken while not challenging the mainstream’s dominant position of power. Superficial changes can be made to benefit the marginalised, but the structures of society which create the dominance of the mainstream and the marginalisation of groups such as international students are not affected. Contribution This study contributes to existing knowledge by using CDA to analyse the impact of social inclusion discourses on how the needs, experiences and welfare of international students are understood. In adopting a critical discourse approach, the study problematises the concept of social inclusion as both a heuristic and antidote for the issues faced by international students living and studying in Australia. It identifies how a social inclusion policy discourse reflects and reinforces existing social structures and power relationships and is therefore unlikely to result in meaningful change. Thereby further confirming critiques from the literature. It thus provides a critical and deeper understanding of the discursive effects of social inclusion discourses on policy prescriptions designed to improve international students’ welfare in Australia and the consequences this has for their lived experience. The study also makes a practical contribution by critically analysing the well intentioned social policy of a progressive local government and identifying the hidden effects which counteract the policy’s intended outcomes. The study’s findings should enable not only the specific Council which was the site of this research, but any organisation considering utilising a social inclusion discourse, to construct its social policy discourse in such a way that it does not inadvertently undermine the desired objectives.


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Susan Mayson

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Faculty of Business and Economics

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