Engaging with the Context

International partnerships that support students on exchange are based on recognition and an understanding of the intersection of each partner’s historical, structural, economic, political and socio-cultural connections.  Australia’s relationship with the Indo-Pacific region is situated within a historical context of colonisation, income disparities and shifting geopolitical balances.  A decolonising approach to student exchange commits to ethical practice, social justice, equity, equality and values.


Power imbalance in international relationships brings with it issues of privilege, racism and imperialism. Often we forget to consider how this may impact our relationships with our host partners.

Have you considered how the political environment, history, social and cultural mores, may impact on the exchange? Have you critically analysed this potential impact?
Have your partners been actively involved in the decision making, design and implementation of the exchange?
Who has initiated the relationship and who is setting the agenda?
The decision making process
  • How are decisions being made?
  • Who makes the decisions?
  • What factors may influence decisions?
Who is in control of resources and who has access to them?

Privileged attitudes

It is easy to forget within the bureaucracy of international placements that the approach we take may be ethnocentric.

How would the exchange look through the eyes of our host institutions? What are the important outcomes of the exchange for them? Are these aims prominent in the processes of the exchange?
Is the relationship between partners based on respectful communication and reciprocity where mutual expectations and workloads are openly discussed?
Have you challenged western norms and considered new and innovative ways to collaborate in exchange?
Have you prepared your students to consider their inherent privilege and alerted them to the impact of this privilege during the exchange?

Student readiness for exchange

It is important that students too are encouraged to view the exchange through a decolonising lens.  As representatives of their university and profession, they should be mindful of their ethical practice responsibilities while on exchange, thus minimising the chances of being a burden on their hosts.

Have students been prepared in a way that alerts them to the nuances of power and privilege? Do they know how to be critically reflective, and to apply a decolonising lens to view their exchange experiences?
Are students aware of their responsibilities to the university and to their host while on exchange?
Are students aware of the standards of their profession that can inform their exchange experience e.g. AASW Practice Standards and Code of Ethics and the Public Health Competencies?

To support projects to engage effectively with context, these two downloadable resources may be useful: Engaging with the Context Power Analysis Checklist  and Challenging Stereotypes Exercise

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Embed exchange within Sustainable Internationalisation

Student exchange is one aspect of internationalisation and, when embedded in the context of a broader international collaboration, offers the opportunity for staff and students to engage in intercultural learning, nurture international connections and develop global mindedness. Sustainable internationalisation is an ongoing human endeavour to develop and transform learning and professional practice across boundaries, by promoting connections, developing understanding, addressing power imbalances and valuing diversity.

Exchange purpose

Sustainability relies on a clear, mutually-shared understanding of the purpose of the exchange between the university, student and host. As there are different types of exchange programs, it is important to have a shared understanding across the institution.

Is there a shared understanding of the purpose of the international activity, including goals and outcomes, between the university and partner?
Is there a clear understanding of the purpose of the exchange at all levels within the facilitating department of your university?
Does the exchange program fit within the priorities of the School, Faculty and University?

Formalising relationships

A formal document, such as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) will assist in establishing goals and expectations for both the university and host partner. Embedding a formal commitment to reciprocity that reflects the needs and aspirations of the host partner is essential.

Is a formal MOU in place that clearly promotes and supports the two-way nature of the exchange?
Is there evidence of institutional investment in and knowledge of the exchange?
Who in the institution needs to be on board?

The position of your exchange program within course framework

International student exchange is an important tool in fostering student global mindedness. To do so, international exchanges must sit within a course framework that supports an understanding of global citizenship and global mindedness.

How is student exchange embedded within the curriculum?
What complimentary curricula support student exchange programs?
Are students equipped with the necessary tools to apply a critical lens to their experience?
Are staff sufficiently confident in their capacity to support students learning on exchange?

Resource imbalances

When working with partners in the Global South, the impact of resource imbalances must be explicitly acknowledged from the beginning of the exchange relationship. Exploring innovative ways to support our partners through open and honest dialogue, is important.

What are the resource and workload implications of the exchange relationship for your partner?
Can you create a safe space that allows your partner to honestly discuss the nature and value of the contributions made by visiting students and staff?
If you are working with a third party provider, have you asked these questions of them?


The workload involved in international exchange is often hidden from our peers and line managers. There needs to be an acknowledgement within Schools, Faculties and the University of the time and resources involved in student exchange, both at our universities but importantly, also at our host partners.

How is the workload for exchange calculated and acknowledged?
Are all aspects of student context and preparation considered?
Is the workload involved in maintaining partnerships, advocating for reciprocity, and developing relationships recognised?
Have the workload implications for our host partners been considered?


In order to inform best practice in this area and further develop future programs, evaluation of exchange arrangements, and student learning outcomes are important.

How do we best debrief with students and our partners about the learning experience?
How can the feedback from students and partners best inform future programs?
What empirical evidence can assist in advocating and justifying international exchange programs?

This short video is a useful resource when looking to find ways of enhancing the sustainability of international exchange projects:

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Foster Authentic Relationships

Student exchange takes place within the context of a broader international relationship. Authentic relationships develop when priority is given to having time and space to be together, building trust and open communication, navigating intercultural understanding, developing an understanding of partner contexts, and ensuring mutual benefit. Reflexive practice is important to consider power imbalances and review decision making processes.

Open communication

Open communication underlies authentic relationships and enduring partnerships. Communication is an area where partners may experience ambiguity and disillusionment. Effective communication is open and ongoing, and requires resourced long-term nurturing.

How frequent is communication between partners?
What are the channels of communication? Does this forum encourage all partner voices to be heard?
What might be some barriers to communication and have you considered strategies to address them?
How do you address cross-cultural aspects of communication?
What is your mutually agreed plan for sustaining communication with between all partners over time?

Mutual benefit

Partnerships with the host institution should be built in ways that ensure mutual benefits of participation in the exchange program. Refer to the issues of power .

What are your and your partner’s expectations about mutual benefit? Have you created opportunities to discuss these expectations?
Who is benefiting from the exchange and at what level?
How will you measure whether the relationship is mutually beneficial?

Intercultural understanding

Intercultural understanding requires a genuine commitment to understanding your partner’s and your own cultural contexts and assumptions.

What processes can be implemented to ensure staff are aware of their cultural positioning and intercultural skills?
What opportunities do you have to learn about the cultural understandings of your partner institutions?
What are your ideological, ethical and religious values that may impact your approach to and understanding of partners?

Reflexive practice

A reflexive approach encourages sending institutions to examine the impact of the cultural legacies of colonialism and imperialism on international partnerships.

How do you navigate intercultural understanding in your relationships?
What do you regard as the characteristics of authentic relationships? How is this view of authentic relationships impacted by cultural legacies?
Is space and time created for your partner to share their understanding of an authentic relationship, within their context?

Risk management

Consider potential risks to maintaining an authentic relationship with your partner. International exchange can be complicated, with the risk that interrupted communication, time away and specific difficulties can impact the overall relationship.

What are possible risks to your relationship and how these be addressed?
Does your project recognise that effective risk management includes an ongoing commitment to gaining input from all partners?

Fostering authentic relationships is a crucial but challenging principle. These short videos provide discussion and examples of how this has been accomplished in four different locations.

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Commit to Reciprocal Partnerships

Reciprocity is a contested concept with multiple cultural and contextual interpretations. Reciprocal processes respect host organisations’ aspirations for reciprocity based on their interests, priorities and future directions. Reciprocal practice establishes equity in relationships, addresses disparities in finances and processes, and challenges a western lens of mutual benefit. While exchange takes place through a variety of arrangements, including contracting out to third party providers, a commitment to reciprocity remains important.

Reciprocity and power imbalances

Reciprocity is important in the development of meaningful international partnerships but is rarely clearly defined and understood. Reciprocity requires sustained commitment and self-reflection.

What does reciprocity mean for you and how does that apply in your practice?
Have you thought about the power imbalances that may be experienced by partner agencies at various levels and at various stages of engagement? What do these power imbalances mean for an authentically reciprocal relationship?

Two-way learning

Reciprocity in learning abroad activities is not an easily defined or a readily implemented concept.

Are there opportunities for two-way learning?
What is the content that is discussed and shared?
How can partnerships be strengthened to enhance this learning?

Two-way flow

Reciprocity can include a two-way flow of students and academics between institutions and organisations.

Is the nature of the partnership one-way or two-way?
How can you promote a two-way process where all the partners benefit?
What decisions are needed to make this partnership a two-way process?
What is the impact of this exchange on non-travelling students, communities and the organisations?

Resources and contributions

Lack of comprehensive, reliable resourcing to plan, implement and evaluate programs can negatively impact on relationships, reciprocity and sustainability.

Who controls resource allocations, and in what ways are partner’s communications considered?
How transparent are you in sharing, acknowledging and valuing the contributions of all partners?
Have you examined who is acknowledging whom and if there is an organisational commitment to reciprocate this acknowledgement?
How is the partnership acknowledged? How has your partner enhanced the visibility of your program?

This article by Zuchowski, et al (2017) provides an interesting discussion of the importance of reciprocity in international exchange:


This short video also discusses the issues surrounding reciprocity and its place in international exchange: https://youtu.be/3gm1q6hH5rg

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Apply a Critical Lens to InterculturalLearning and Global Perspectives

Intercultural learning is a two-way process and is enhanced by developing an awareness of the influence of our cultural-self. Experiences of privilege, racism, colonisation and imperialism impact on our understanding of culture and cultural difference. Intercultural learning requires educators to intentionally create a safe cultural learning space for both visiting and hosting staff and students, prior to, during and following and international experience.

Critical preparation

Critical preparation involves going beyond practicalities associated with international travel to develop a critical lens through which students may examine their experiences.

What are useful processes for ensuring staff awareness of their own cultural positioning and intercultural skills?
In which ways can students engage with location-specific cultural contexts?
Are students provided with opportunities to engage with concepts such as racism, white privilege, colonialism etc., prior to travel?
How are staff encouraging students to reflect on their own experiences and positioning within such critical concepts?
How are international partners and community member viewpoints integrated into processes and critical preparation materials?

Practical preparation

Practical preparation covers a wide range of specific issues ranging from travel insurance, visas, and transport arrangements through to cultural etiquette, food and risk assessment. Practical preparation should be seen as sitting alongside critical preparation, with both being essential prerequisites for effective intercultural learning.

How are you involving international partners in practical preparation processes?
How can you involve students from previous exchanges in practical preparations?
How are you connecting the travelling cohort so they may easily share ideas and concerns regarding practical preparations?

Learning opportunities

Learning opportunities inevitably arise in all international travel experiences. The value of these experiences may be maximised when part of a consciously facilitated process.

Are there learning opportunities intentionally designed within the travel plan?
Are learning objectives clearly articulated?
Is there opportunity to create opportunities for skilfully guided reflective discussion while in the host country?
How are you creating safe and supported learning environments, in recognition of the often challenging emotional component of intercultural learning?
How are you identifying before and after travel learning opportunities through critical preparation and reflective debriefing?

Language training

Language barriers can act as significant obstacles to deeper intercultural learning. Without imposing unrealistic expectations about language acquisition, providing students with opportunities to develop some language capacity can enhance intercultural learning.

Are there opportunities for language acquisition during exchange preparation? Are there opportunities during travel?
Are you creating opportunities for drawing on reciprocal international relationships? Are there language building activities for sharing language skill to mutual benefit within the program?
How can the host community members be engaged in sharing language and culture as part of exchange preparation?

Debriefing and redefining the experience

An essential part of facilitating meaningful intercultural learning is by creating space for reflection on the travel experience. Allowing students to redefine or extract new meaning from their travel experience, integrates a critical, intercultural dimension to the exchange.

Has debriefing after travel been structured and facilitated? Is the debriefing within a safe and supported space for recounting ‘difficult’ learning?
How do you encourage students to re-visit learning goals and key critical concepts as part of this debriefing process? Is there discussion for students to recognise the influence of a critical lens on their learning experience?
Are you drawing out the links between students’ experiences and future professional practice? Are there opportunities for students to reconceptualise their future professional practice in the light of the exchange experience?
Are you students supported in knowing how best to describe their experience and associated learning in for example, professional portfolios and job applications?

“Intercultural learning: Critical preparation for international student travel” is an open access eBook designed to support students in developing a critical lens when engaging in international exchange: http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/books/intercultural-learning

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Facilitate and Guide Transformative Learning

International experiences offer great potential for student learning and transformation, and can lead to increased intercultural competence, global citizenship and the development of professional identity. Realising this potential requires skilled educators with the time and structures in place to create safe spaces for critical reflection on assumptions, values and beliefs balance regular support with the discomfort and ambiguity that challenge students’ preconceived notions.

Personal and professional learning

International exchange engages students in challenging personal and professional experiences which can provide valuable opportunities for growth.

What student values and beliefs may be challenged by the exchange experience?
What resources are available to foster their critical reflection of the experiences?
Who will support, guide and facilitate learning before, during and after the experience?

Purpose and intentional teaching

Be prepared to engage with students about their learning in intentional ways. It is useful to capitalise on teachable moments and be prepared to recognise opportunities for learning.

What preparation could you undertake to recognise learning opportunities as they arise?
What space and time is available prior, during and after the exchange to engage with students about their practice experiences, reactions and comments for purposeful learning?
How can assignments be used to deepen student learning?

Skill development for educators

Educators facilitating the international exchange need to have skills, resources and time to facilitate groups and engage students in transformative learning processes.

What strategies, skills and resources are in place to challenge subtle (and not so subtle) expressions of racism and professional imperialism?
Is there a growing capacity to effectively address racism and prejudice through professional development?

Structured support

Assisting students to challenge their perspectives is supported through structured facilitation where learning about respectful and reciprocal relationships in exchange is a priority.

How will we support, guide and facilitate learning before, during and after the experience?
What resources and supports are available internally and externally to the program?
How can we use group and peer learning processes to support the learning experience?

This paper by Jones & Miles (2017) explores a critical approach to the use of transformative learning in international student exchange:

“Transformative learning in international student exchange: A critical perspective”. 

The ‘Learning Journal Roadmap’ is a useful tool for supporting students’ learning while on exchange: