AUSTRALIA: Foreign student rights overlooked

The Australian Human Rights Commission has criticised the federal and state governments over a strategy they released relating to international students, arguing that it failed to tackle significant problems including affordable housing and safety.

Meeting as the Council of Australian Governments, the eight states and territories and the federal government released an "international strategy for international students". The stated aim of the 28-page document is to support "a high-quality experience for international students to ensure a sustainable future for quality international education in Australia".

The last phrase refers to the sudden and alarming downturn in the number of Chinese and Indian students - the major markets - enrolling in Australian higher education.

The strategy focuses on four 'action areas' - student well-being, quality of education, consumer protection and better information - as well as 12 initiatives the governments all agreed to implement.

But Human Rights Race Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes said the strategy overlooked crucial problems.

Innes said international student representative bodies had raised concerns with him during his ongoing work with them and it was disappointing that a number had either not been considered or were not part of the strategy.

These included transport concessions in Victoria and New South Wales, which do not provide concessions for travel on public transport to foreigners; safe and affordable housing options; and dedicated police with specialised knowledge about international student safety as was the case in other countries such as the UK.

Innes said there was also a need for specific strategies for female international students to address issues such as sexual violence and sexual harassment associated with study-related work placements.

In a statement released with the strategy, the council of governments said after years of success Australia's international education sector faced major challenges arising from rapid changes in the size and composition of the international education sector.

"As a key area of competitive advantage for Australia, supporting a high quality student experience is therefore crucial to maintaining the success of Australia's international education sector," the statement said.

"The strategy has been developed alongside a number of other complementary measures at a state, territory and national level, including targeted law enforcement to support student safety and a review of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act."

That review would lead to changes that would ensure students were better supported through improved information, management of education agents, stronger consumer protection mechanisms and enhanced support to study and live in Australia, including having somewhere to go when problems arose, the council said.

It also noted the various governments were developing new standards for the English language sector "to build on Australia's world-leading industry accreditation scheme".

Under its strategy, the council said international students would have access to a student personal safety guide; have a national forum to put forward their views on issues affecting their study and living experiences in Australia; be able to access an independent and expert complaints handling mechanism; and have access to comprehensive and accurate information in a variety of languages about studying, living and working in Australia.

Students would also be able through a "community engagement strategy" to become more involved in local community life and activities.

But Commissioner Innes said he wanted to know how this would be done. In particular, how it would be resourced, how existing provider safety plans would add any specific value for international students, and who would be responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of the plans.