Missing friendships: understanding the absent relationships of local and international students at an Australian university


In recent years, research on higher education has increasingly examined the realities of internationalisation, with a particular focus on international students’ experiences and internationalisation at home programs. These studies have explored the friendships of international students, including their relationships with both locals and internationals from other countries. However, local students’ perspectives and experiences of friendship are largely absent from this literature. The few accounts examining local students’ lives explicitly focus on improving their cross-cultural knowledge and engagement, or on rare cases of local–international student friendships. The overriding assumption in this literature is that the understandings and social practises of local students are major barriers to their relationships with internationals. This paper addresses this gap by exploring local students’ perspectives on the absence of friendships with their international peers. We utilise findings from a research project on internationalisation at home, involving interviews and focus groups with local and international students and staff at an Australian university. Focusing on locals’ discussions of potential friendships with internationals, we propose that these missing friendships are an important area of study. We find that these friendships are missing for several interrelated reasons: local–international friendships are considered unnecessary and are therefore unimagined by locals, who tend to assume that similarity and affinity naturally lead to friendships, and the structures and spaces that might facilitate friendships are absent. Ultimately, uncovering why these friendships are missing sheds fuller light on how relationships might be facilitated, potentially informing and improving universities’ internationalisation initiatives.

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  1. 1.

    The University of Western Australia is located in Perth, Western Australia, known as the most isolated city in the world. Despite Western Australia taking up about a third of the Australian land mass, over 79 % of the state’s residents live in the Perth metropolitan area (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015).

  2. 2.

    As of Semester 2, 2016, these units were merged to form Advanced Qualitative Methods: Interviews and Focus Groups. The data reported on in this paper draws only on the 2014 and 2015 units, however.

  3. 3.

    For instance, students are required to revise the first draft of their list of interview and focus group questions as well as their participant information sheet. These revisions are based on feedback provided by the lecturers (in this case, the authors). Students also carry out trial interviews and focus groups on their peers, in which peers are required to play particular roles (the role of a shy student, for instance). This is designed to confront students with some of the challenges of conducting interviews and focus groups.

  4. 4.

    This project was declared exempt from Ethics Review by the University of Western Australia’s Human Research Ethics Office (HREO). Low risk projects centred on teaching and learning research are eligible for such status.


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We wish to thank Narelle McAuliffe, Marie-Eve Ritz, Michael Azariadis, Manonita Ghosh, and Adele Millard for their contributions to the project. Special thanks go to the students who participated in the units, whose findings are featured in this paper. Finally, we are grateful to the project’s 2014 Advisory Group, who offered valuable thoughts and suggestions on the project and its activities. The “Intercultural learning at home: Promoting internationalisation on campus” project was financially supported by a 2014 Alumni Fund Grant from the University of Western Australia.

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Correspondence to Lara McKenzie.

Ethics declarations

This project has been declared exempt from Ethics Review by the University of Western Australia’s Human Research Ethics Office (HREO). Low risk projects centred on teaching and learning research are eligible for such status. Permission to use student-researchers’ data was sought and gained, and they have been acknowledged by name where such data appears.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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McKenzie, L., Baldassar, L. Missing friendships: understanding the absent relationships of local and international students at an Australian university. High Educ 74, 701–715 (2017) doi:10.1007/s10734-016-0073-1

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  • Friendship
  • Cross-cultural engagement
  • Local students
  • International students
  • Internationalisation at home
  • Internationalisation