AUSTRALIA: The perils of commercialism

More than two decades ago, the Australian government decided that international higher education should become an industry; since then it has become a major income producer for the nation. The higher education sector was motivated to make money from international education by government budget cuts, with revenue to be made up largely by entrepreneurial international activity.

One result has been the widespread and welcome internationalisation of both student and staff profiles and important initiatives to internationalise programmes. Another result has been that the prime goal of internationalisation has become money-making, largely driven by government under-funding.

Government pressure

Encouraged by government policies to marketise higher education and pushed to substitute fees from international students for declining state support, the higher education sector responded energetically with a wide range of initiatives.

International student enrollments at Australian universities ballooned, as did income derived from their high tuition fees. Universities also developed a variety of overseas strategies, including branch campuses (in Vietnam, South Africa, Singapore and elsewhere), twinning arrangements with educational institutions and business enterprises of various kinds in Malaysia and elsewhere.

The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's Vietnam campus aims to have 10,000 enrollments by 2012 and already has more than 120 international enrollments. Monash University's campus in Malaysia is offering full medical degrees and has a current total enrollment of over 4,000, with 400 staff. Of the total growth in international student numbers, offshore enrolments have been the fastest-growing component.

The government cooperated by providing some funding for international outreach and, most significantly, by easing visa and other immigration regulations. Thus, this policy made it easy for international students to study in Australia and then remain in the country and work after completing their degrees and certificates.

Emerging problems

From a financial perspective, the policy created huge success. Educational services became one of Australia's top exports, with official estimates of current total earnings from international education at around US$15.5 billion (most of which is from higher education).

But from an academic viewpoint, problems soon entered the system.

Overseas, questions were raised about the quality and ethics of Australian institutional transplants. South Africa wondered about its Monash campus, while the Vietnam and Malaysian initiatives, which had strong support from their respective governments, were more successful. A few initiatives failed, such as the University of New South Wales in Singapore, costing the university many millions when it withdrew after failing to attract enough students.

Bottom-feeders entered the market, as usually happens when financial gain becomes the central motivator for international higher education.

In the private sector, small vocational colleges in fields such as hairdressing and cooking attracted significant numbers of students from abroad, especially from South Asia, with promises of quick certificates and (sometimes spurious) jobs thereafter. Students with marginal qualifications began to stream in, some duped by exaggerated promises made by wily education agents in India.

Outbreaks of anti-South Asian prejudice, in Melbourne and elsewhere - highlighting security problems of international students - created a firestorm of criticism in India, some of it sensationalised.

While a recent survey of 1,600 international students from 10 universities showed that they still believed Australia to be the safest place to study - including alternative destinations such as the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada - the problem of attacks on international students was exacerbated by poor handling on the part of both police and politicians, each of whom attempted to label the attacks as opportunistic, rather than racist.

The national Institute of Criminology has since announced a project to investigate the extent and forms of attacks on international students.

Additional problems arose. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, one of the country's most active international universities, has just been accused of encouraging students to cheat on examinations. Press reports about international students being awarded degrees, despite showing up to exams drunk, and exam papers being leaked to international students are part of an as yet unreleased Ombudsman Report, to which the university will be allowed to respond, before being tabled in the State of Victoria parliament.

Previous cases have included allegations of plagiarism, directed at international students enrolled at the University of New England, via a commercial provider.

Such breaches of academic standards are the predictable results of more than a decade of under-funding of higher education, as a university president recently outlined: "The investment by the federal government fell by about 30% (per) student in real terms between 1996 and 2004."

Indeed, while Education at a Glance 2007 data reveal that on average public funding to higher education rose by 49% across the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development over the decade from 1995 to 2004, in Australia funding actually fell by 4% (the only member country where this occurred).

Until funding is restored to previous levels - something the current federal government has promised to move toward - including a welcome promise to fund the real costs of research, institutions will continue to suffer and resort to internationalisation as a budgetary strategy, rather than a cultural and learning strategy.

New developments

Recent moves by the federal Department of Immigration to reduce the incentive for international students to enroll in short or poor-quality courses, with an eye on migration prospects, are having a welcome shake-out effect, with a number of weaker private vocational colleges that were too dependent on international student fees, having already collapsed.

A revised list of occupations that accords priority to the highly skilled who have a job offer will certainly reduce the proportion of international students who cited the prospect of migration as a reason for studying in Australia, a rate that had risen from 5% in 2005 to a startling 24% by 2009.

Current estimates are that international student numbers in Australia may fall by 20%, albeit mainly in the vocational sector, with a concomitant decline in revenues. However, for some universities that had grown too dependent on high proportions of international enrollments, the effects are likely to be significant.

Hopefully, the recently announced reforms will to some extent restore Australia's enviable international academic image - its 'brand', which has already been significantly damaged.

All of this is a predictable outcome of commercialism shaping international education.

Australia's example has important lessons for other countries. The United Kingdom, for example, has not merely been pursuing similar policies, but the recently announced major budget cuts to universities will only push institutions there to pursue international student income even more vigorously.

* Philip G Altbach is Monan Professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, US. E-mail: Anthony Welch is professor of education at the University of Sydney, Australia. E-mail:

Good to see some facts quoted by Philip Altbach to support his contentions about Australian international education. Many of the facts are correct. It is worth pointing out that the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne were not in fact racially motivated, but were opportunistic crimes by mostly small groups of teenage boys, generally under 16 years of age, apparently out to prove they are real men. The largest group of victims was in fact Caucasian.

There are two forthcoming opportunities for observers from overseas to get a better understanding of Australian international education. The first is a major Australia-US symposium, Advancing Australia-US Engagement in International Education, to be held in Sydney on 10th and 11th October 2010. Details at

The second is the Australian International Education Conference, to be held immediately following the symposium, from 12th-15th October, also in Sydney. The conference provides a major opportunity for Australian and international visitors to interact and discuss leading trends in international education - including the balancing act between the business of international education and quality and standards, research internationalisation, intercultural understanding, social cohesion, public diplomacy, migration and and the labour market. Details at

Dennis Murray,
Executive Director,
International Education Association of Australia