The following talk was given on October 19, 2023, at the International students and the University of Sydney symposium: research and insights.

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International House, connecting Australian and international students at Sydney University for 53 years until 2020

By Gregory Houseman, Chair of the Council of Sydney University International House

We’re here today to celebrate the many contributions that international students have made to Sydney University and I thank SUPRA and for organizing this event and Weihong for inviting me to speak at it. As chairman of the Sydney University International House Council, I want to talk about the role that International House has played in welcoming international students to Sydney in past years. But while operations at IH are suspended for now, I also want to make the case that a redeveloped International House can make an even more important contribution to the University in future. The quality of the student experience in the International House environment provides an outstanding opportunity to those students who have been privileged to experience it. IH, or the House as it was usually known, was home to up to 200 people at any one time during its 54 years of operation. So there are approximately 6,000 people who at one time or another considered it as home while they were students at Sydney University. I was one of those students in the late 1970’s, and I thought it was a brilliant place to be, not just because of the location, but because of the people who lived in it and the ideas on which it is based.

Unfortunately, since 2020 the International House is closed, awaiting redevelopment of the site. Although I want to focus more on the ideas which gave rise to International House and the impact that it had on the people who lived there, I’ll just show you a few photos that maybe will help to focus what I have to say about it. I’m sure you have all seen these buildings on the corner of City Rd and Cleveland Street. The original buildings were designed by a famous Sydney architect Walter Bunning, and were constructed in the mid 1960’s. Looking across City Rd we have the original buildings, comprising an 8-storey residential stack and the round building known as the rotunda which housed the common areas. An elevated view shows the layout more clearly with the Seymour Centre visible on the Cleveland St side. From the Seymour Centre, the rotunda is seen through the trees, and from the Darlington side we see more clearly the extensions that were added in the 1970’s and 80’s. There was even a roof garden.

The rotunda building housed the dining room, showing the simple round tables that were at the heart of the IH experience, seen here on a typical lunch time, and here in a formal candle-lit dinner. On the floor above the dining room was the Wool Room that was used for social and formal gatherings, as well as day to day purposes. It was surrounded at the upper level by special purpose rooms like library, computer room, games room. The rotunda building is particularly iconic. With its circular footprint it is symbolic of the ideals of International House, a microcosm of our multicultural world, where people come together from many directions for discussion and exchange of ideas. The building and the tables within it inspired the IH logo, representing the table shared by its residents. The first residents were in 1967 and the last in 2020, in the midst of the Covid- enforced border closures. This last slide provides a snapshot of the last student intake in 2020. The more numerous groups by nationality were Australia, India, China, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and South Korea, and the countries of south-east Asia.

You may have got the impression from these photos that the accommodation was rather basic. It was. The new wings added in the 70’s and 80’s were somewhat more comfortable. But in the long run, what is most memorable about the experience of living there is not the physical environment of the buildings, but the exceptional people who we shared the buildings with, the lifelong friendships established and the shared experiences in that time.

I have been asked on multiple occasions, why was International House closed? Although that happened at the height of the epidemic, Covid-19 was not the only reason for the decision to close. The infrastructure had been needing serious investment for years; building safety standards had changed since 1967, as had resident expectations around things like shared bathrooms. Although the buildings were not much more than 50 years old, the assessment led by the University’s Infrastructure Division concluded that a major re-development of the site that would accommodate up to 600 residents was needed to see us through the next 100 years. Although closing was a painful decision, the University had confirmed its intention to proceed with the redevelopment of International House, and it seemed necessary to make that decision in 2020, in order to move forward with the redevelopment, at a time when the House as an operating unit of the University was not financially viable. Since then the process is somewhat stalled because the University has multiple competing requirements for major investment at any point in time, and the redevelopment project is awaiting decisions about how to finance it.

In 1962, the provision by the University of land expressly dedicated to the establishment of an International House was a strong statement acknowledging the importance of International students in the future University. That land is still dedicated to the same purpose, and leaving it idle indefinitely is not something that anyone wants. So I am confident that the redevelopment of International House will take place, and I hope that we will not have to wait too long for it. Of the 6,000 or so alumni who experienced International House at Sydney University many are saddened by the thought that it is now closed and is unlikely to re-open sooner than 5 years from now. Some are particularly troubled by the fact that the old, much loved, buildings stand there unused. The International House has its own alumni association that is actively advocating the re-establishment of International House. For many of the alumni, International House was a second home for an important part of their life. I know many people for whom the friendships established as students in the International House have remained strong throughout their careers.

The International House Council, which reports to the University Senate, served as the governing body of International House while it was operational. Its role at present is mainly to advise the University on the requirements for a redeveloped IH that will conform with best practice in the academic environment. I’ve been on the IH Council since 2018, and I became Chair of the IH Council earlier this year. However, my association with this International House goes back to the 1970’s when I was a resident myself while studying for my Science degree at Sydney.

The concept of International House was originally developed in New York thanks to a visionary man named Harry Edmonds. One morning in 1909 he simply said “Good morning” to a chinese student who he passed in the street. The man replied: “Thank you for speaking to me. I have been in New York for three weeks and you are the first person who has spoken to me”. This chance interaction made such an impression on Harry that he took it on himself to organize weekly dinners for groups of foreign students. He eventually gained philanthropic support from John D. Rockefeller Jr, to open the first International House in 1924. It functions as an autonomous organization that hosts students from Columbia University and other universities in New York. The New York IH continues today, 100 years on, vibrant as ever, having had an out-sized impact on thousands of students and having inspired the establishment of other International Houses in North America, Europe and Australia. To quote from the New York website: “International House has transformed the lives of more than 65,000 young professionals in every region and discipline. Some Alumni have gone on to become Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, heads of state, trailblazing innovators, celebrated authors and artists, and CEOs of global corporations. Others lead as teachers, small business owners, community leaders and volunteers throughout the world. All these globally minded leaders are part of a lifelong community brought together by the experience of living in an environment that exemplifies respect for other cultures and an understanding of different perspectives.” I believe that Sydney University International House can aspire to a similar outlook if it is redeveloped successfully.

Sydney University in the 1960’s embraced the concept of International House as a way to welcome international students. Its development was enabled by generous support from the Rotary organization who raised funds from the wider community, and from the NSW government. This university was a very different place 60 years ago. There were many fewer international students than today, and there was a general recognition that those who were here needed support to manage the relatively complex task of going to live in a foreign country where the culture was unfamiliar, and they lacked the support of nearby family and friends. Many of those students were sponsored by their own governments or by international development programs like the Colombo Plan. In those days, travel was so expensive that most of these students had one return flight paid, and little possibility of being able to travel home again for any special family occasion that happened during their degree program. Communication with home depended mainly on airmail letters because telephone calls were so expensive, and of course there was no internet.

So, 60 years on, we have a very different environment in Australia and in this university. Since then Australia embraced multiculturalism, and broadened its immigration program to accept migrants from all parts of the world, emphasizing a skills-based selection mechanism, but also accepting many refugees from troubled parts of the world. Many Australians now have at least one parent born overseas; many have lived overseas, or at least traveled widely; business ties with other countries have greatly expanded. So the contrast between International House and broader Australian Society is no longer as vivid as it was 50 years ago. I would say that Australians in general are very comfortable with a rather globalised community enabled by the era of relatively cheap international travel and communication options that seemed impossible when I was a student. I remember one of my first year physics lecturers telling us that mobile video telephony (facetime in modern jargon) was simply not physically possible. Things change, and now we take it for granted. And that is just one minor, but socially significant, aspect of how much technological change has occurred for us in the last 60 years.

Over the years, one of the things that I have come to realize is that the technology we use, the business environment, and even the political environment, have all changed so much in the course of my career that the relevance of many of the specific things I learned in the formal university environment faded rather quickly after I left university. In some areas, that learning is now only of historical interest; the basics have survived of course: how to communicate effectively with people, basic physical principles, how to analyze a problem quantitatively, and the importance of ethical behavior. Actually, what is important at university is that you learn how to learn, because you need to keep learning throughout your career to keep up with the pace of change. Developing links and interacting with your peers is as important as anything else, especially if you go in to business. I think that the kind of environment provided by International House really provides that opportunity in a more profound way than anything else I experienced at Sydney University.

Alongside the broader changes in Australian society there has been huge growth of the university sector which now enables a much greater fraction of the local population to attend university. The composition of the Universities has changed also, due in large part to the huge growth in IT and business oriented studies, relative to an older emphasis on traditional areas of arts, science and engineering. And of course there has been a huge increase in numbers of international students. So what should be the role of an International House in the present and future Sydney University?

Even an IH that can accommodate 600 people can not provide residence to more than a small fraction of the international student cohort of about 25,000 who enrol at Sydney University. However, it can inspire and set a standard for best practice in student residential life, and it can provide support in various forms to non-resident international students. The choice of where to live can have a huge influence on the quality of the University experience. As someone who lived in International House as an undergraduate student while doing a science degree at Sydney University, subsequently had the experience of being a foreign graduate student at Cambridge in the UK, and then followed an academic career in geophysics at Harvard, ANU, Monash, and Leeds, I feel confident in saying that my experience as a student in International House was optimum in many ways.

Some of you may be wondering why I, as a local student, lived at International House ? In fact the value of a residence like International House owes a lot to the diversity of the community that lives within. From the outset, it was planned that the House would aim for a 50-50 balance in international and local students, also in undergraduate and graduate students, as broad a range of degree programs as possible, and of course gender parity. This diversity made for an incredibly stimulating environment. To me who had grown up in western Sydney it was really eye-opening to see and to begin to understand that diversity. The community in general ate meals together in a communal dining hall with round tables seating about 10 people, and the dinner-time discussions about everything from mundane topics to academic, intellectual and political questions were often the highlight of a day when the formal classes might not have been that inspiring. Alongside the day to day interactions, the House had special occasions like the International Night, where individuals or groups of residents would present something musical or dramatic that was often characteristic of their own culture or background. There was an annual ball organized by the residents, occasional guest lectures in the evenings, and many smaller-scale events that took place on the initiative of different groups, including intra-mural sports competitions with other colleges.

A couple of quotes from other International House alumni make the point better than I can: “There are few things in life more enriching than sitting around the International House dining table full of people from different countries discussing their cultures, background and world events. It made me a global citizen in a way nothing else could have.” and from another alumnus, “I love the wonderfully egalitarian nature of IH. The round tables where you’d find yourself discussing physics one moment and philosophy the next, everything from African society to Asian politics. An opportunity to learn much more than was simply offered in the University’s courses.”

The global perspective of the International House community, alumni and residents, is perhaps best illustrated by their fundraising and strong support for the development of the Bo Children’s Hospital in Sierra Leone, West Africa in 2012. This was an initiative of International House alumnus Dr Nuli Lemoh whose home town was Bo. It was aimed at addressing a child mortality rate that was among the highest in the world at that time. This hospital, only the second children’s hospital in the country, but modest by Sydney standards, has had a major impact on health outcomes for mothers and children in this disadvantaged part of Sierra Leone. The International House Council in 2017 awarded Dr Lemoh the alumni achievement award for his contribution to the international community.

For all of us residents of International House, whether from Australia or elsewhere, the opportunity to interact with and learn from this very diverse group of IH people was formative. We learnt a lot from each other. When mixing with people in this way, it becomes obvious that regardless of background, we all in general have similar motivations and aspirations for life, family and career. It was easy to think of the place as a kind of second home. There seemed no place for the kind of identity politics that sometimes dominates the broader media. The technological innovations that have brought us social media have provided us with many benefits and opportunities but there also seems to be a downside. Misinformation and manipulation of attitudes have created new risks in recent years. But the best antidote to such problems is to get people to talk to each other in an atmosphere of respect so that ideas get developed and tested by discussion based on lived experience. That is really where the International House experience was so profound. And it is definitely a two-way exchange, both international and local students benefited from a more global perspective by these exchanges.

Speaking for myself again, I went on to a career in geophysics, probably one of the most globalised disciplines that there is – especially in the resources sector (the major minerals companies, etc are thoroughly multi-national because they need to operate in multiple countries). The classes that I taught at the University of Leeds had about 50% international students. I ran research projects with colleagues in which we deployed seismographs across extensive rural areas and national borders.

In the course of deploying over 120 seismographs in rural areas of Eastern Europe and Turkey, I met numerous landowners, farmers, scientists and local officials in Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Austria who all welcomed our initiative to study the processes causing earthquakes in those regions. I co-organized annual geophysical field schools in Hungary for undergraduate students from both UK and Hungary. In all of these endeavors, I think that my ability to manage these cooperative international efforts owed a lot to my experience of the diverse International House community in Sydney. Simply put, I learned that collaboration with people you don’t know basically starts with respect on both sides. Of course good communication, recognition of different skill sets and knowledge bases, and agreement about what are the goals and necessary resources are also needed. In all the fieldwork we did in those countries, the basic arrangements started from the position that every field team would have members from both UK and local institutions. I think that such arrangements are commonplace in multi-national companies, at least in the resources sector.

Where they are not, problems are likely to appear before long.

Today, too often, foreign students in Sydney are isolated from their Australian peers by the circumstances of their class enrollment and their accommodation experience. If the accommodation arrangement leaves you in the situation where the only other students you meet are in the classes you take, you are getting short-changed on the university experience. Thus student accommodation is a key issue for both foreign and domestic students – it can make or break the university experience. This year, in NSW at least, a shortage of rental accommodation has put some students into very difficult situations. What should be an enjoyable period in which foreign students get to meet, interact with, and learn from their Australian peers as well as their university instructors, is turned into a stressful struggle with accommodation and commuting issues which can leave them feeling isolated and unsupported.

However, it is clear that the question of how best to support the student experience in Australian universities requires a range of accommodation options, simply because of the numbers. In recent years student accommodation options typically have been developed by universities in conjunction with private developers. Such options provide essential physical infrastructure, but they can neglect the social dimension of the student experience because building and operational costs are reduced if there are no large common areas such as a dining hall. Still, such accommodation blocks can be preferable to the private rental market because at least they minimize the commute by being located close to the University.

Residential colleges on or near a university campus have become a less influential part of the modern Australian University scene as university enrollments grew larger and more students had to opt for the suburban commute to campus. The commute option can make sense for local students trying to economize or working a second job, but it hardly seems optimum for foreign students who pay very large fees for the benefit of being at an Australian university. Before moving to International House, I also had the experience of commuting from western Sydney to Sydney University, throughout the first year of my degree. Simply put, it was a debilitating experience that consumed three hours a day, five days a week, and left little time for anything after study. One may have to contend with a long commute because of financial or domestic constraints, but it detracts greatly from the student experience. Coming back to Sydney University, forty years after I left, I was impressed by way in which the campus had developed, and the general improvement that had come with many new buildings. But it also struck me that the campus rapidly got rather deserted in the late afternoon. I’m not sure how accurate this impression is, but it seemed that the buzz of the campus was rather diminished compared to my student days. I guess that would not be too surprising if more of today’s students have a long commute and/or are working part-time to cover their expenses.

In contrast, the idea of a residential college on or near the campus, where a diverse group of students share meals has proven to be one of the most effective models for supporting the student experience, because discussion with your peers is one of the most effective ways to build a broad network of contacts and expose yourself to a broad range of ideas and perspectives. Residential colleges are hardly a new idea. They have persisted in places like Cambridge and Oxford for centuries, because they work so well. Shared meals in a dining hall enable students to interact daily and learn from their peers who have grown up in a range of diverse and sometimes difficult environments. The diversity of the student group and shared meals experienced in the International House model provides opportunities for students to learn from and support each other unequaled by any other accommodation model.

In saying this, I recognize that Sydney University has nine other residential colleges that also can offer an excellent experience to their residents. Those colleges have also undergone major changes in the past 50 years. Whereas International House stood out from the group of residential colleges for its diversity in the 1970’s, they all now aspire to diversity in one way or another. Past problems in Sydney University’s “college culture” were addressed by a major independent review of all the residential colleges in 2017, which resulted in significant changes to some of the colleges. It is ironic however that International House as one of the colleges least affected by those problems is the only one that is now closed. In fact the International House model depending on a diverse and relatively mature mix of student residents was identified by some as an important factor in its avoiding issues with hazing, bullying, harassment etc, that were reported elsewhere.

In a recent submission to the Australian Universities Review, we advocated that Universities with large foreign enrollments should look closely at the International House model and take a lead in the development of high-end student accommodation that provides the best quality student experience. A thriving International House can serve as a hub and a venue for cultural activities involving the wider international and local student cohort. The International House in New York, the oldest and best established of a large group of International Houses around the world provides a shining example of a successful non-profit operation that meets these goals. Its website (ihouse- is easily found. Several of the Australian universities have experience with the International House model of student accommodation: A search on youtube for “sydney university international house” will also provide for example a number of student witness statements of their experiences in that environment.

And finally I want to emphasize again that the University gains many intangible benefits from a large international cohort. In return, the university has a responsibility to look past the lecture hall and the laboratory to facilitate an environment in which international students can make the most of their opportunities to study in Sydney. We are also wasting an opportunity if local students do not also benefit from the presence of the international cohort. There are multiple factors that affect the student experience for both cohorts, but accommodation is surely one of the major ones. The International House accommodation model can provide an environment shared by local and foreign residents who gain more insight into and understanding of each other’s culture and background, building networks and life-long friendships.. That experience can provide an important component of a university education that complements and can be even more important than the resources that are shared in the classroom. Given the resources, International House can also act as a point of contact for non-resident students who wish to get involved in House activities.

Promoting an environment in which the best students from foreign countries can interact with and learn from, and provide learning to, their local peers is something we have to aspire to. Such interaction provides an important antidote to a kind of narrow nationalism that is too readily cultivated in the world of social media, because by talking to people, you begin to understand that the media cliches may be wrong or misleading. By building successful communities of international and domestic students we forge long-lived connections that can contribute in the long term to economic prosperity and reduced international conflict. We can’t afford to leave the task of building bridges between nations to media organizations that play up to populist politicians and commentators. The University environment is where we should be building bridges between nations by enhancing mutual respect and understanding between people who are at the start of their careers.

Gregory Houseman
FRS Emeritus Professor of Geophysics
University of Leeds