International students treated as commodities

More than 25% of Australian higher education enrolments were international students in 2015. Of these 280,000 were studying onshore, mostly at Australia’s public universities with a very small number at private higher education providers.

International education is Australia’s highest source of export income after iron ore and coal. To say that the Australian public university system is reliant on the fees paid by international students is an understatement.

The Australian higher education system has expanded over the past decades and there are now more than 1.4 million students enrolled, which does mean that obtaining a bachelor’s degree is now a reality for more than one-third of the working age population.

However, the level of public investment, at 0.7% of gross domestic product or GDP, is well below the OECD average of 1.1% of GDP. As a consequence, Australian tertiary education’s reliance on private investment at 57.5% of total income is well above the OECD average of about 30%.

For most universities this private investment substantially accrues from domestic student fees, which are among the highest in the world. The only country with significantly higher average fees for a bachelor-level degree is the United States. However, it is the 363,000-plus international students that disproportionately contribute with fees that may be triple that of domestic students for the same course of study.

Cash cows

A few years ago the president of the international students’ association at a top university took to wearing a cow costume to make the point that the students were being treated as ‘cash cows’. The reality is that today international students are subsidising the education of domestic students as their fees are used to partially make up the funding gap.

The federal government is committed to increasing this reliance on international students while pursuing a 20% cut in university funding. To assist the universities, the government has just ‘simplified’ visa requirements, including offering opportunities to work in Australia upon graduation.

At first glance this appears reasonable, but for two factors. First, visa conditions were tightened a few years ago as opportunistic private businesses were offering sham courses as a way for people to enter Australia to then seek residency. These courses were often high cost and traded upon the desire to migrate to Australia. It did nothing for Australia’s reputation as a quality education ‘market’.

Graduate jobs in Australia look positive too, but unfortunately students will be left to find these themselves and they will also be gamed by those seeking a cheaper labour force, which also undermines Australian labour laws and salaries and working conditions.

There is a big enough scandal recently exposed in Australia where international students have been working for very poor casual wages and have been threatened by their employers that their visas will be cancelled if they complain.

Deteriorating conditions

While international students report that their experience in Australia is generally positive, there is an undercurrent of exploitation, poverty, loneliness and despair, and despite the efforts of the marketers to gloss over problems, the real story is exposed primarily via social media. In direct contradiction to their importance in keeping the universities afloat, the experience of international students is deteriorating.

International students of the same first language are sometimes crammed in classes together rather than mingling with local English-speaking students, so they do not get to learn and converse in English, are uninvolved in student life and have little positive experience of living in a different culture and pedagogy. This also means that universities can put little effort into ensuring that local students are friendly and culturally competent.

International students report that they are lonely and rely upon staff for assistance in negotiating the university and living in Australia. However, with universities obsessed with reducing staff costs, despite the blow-out in student numbers, increasingly staff are employed casually or on short contracts. For the students and staff this means little continuity and maintenance of service quality. One in two staff members in Australian universities are now precariously employed.

International students often live with others from their country, which has the advantages of familiarity but again limits their experience. (While students come from many countries, most are from China and India.)

International students are generally left to find their own accommodation, although some universities are now investing, or partnering with private companies, to build international student apartment blocks, known locally as shoeboxes.

These have also hit the headlines in Melbourne where some have been found to fail residential codes with too many people jammed in and students paying to sleep on the balcony. Students constantly worry about letting down their families, so they do not want to let them know how they are living or that they are working long hours in poorly paid jobs just to get by.

Universities have been quite callous too. Students have arrived in Australia having passed the English language requirements only to find that their results may have been falsely provided or the university is accepting them without the preparatory level required for the course.

Students are then failed if they do not reach the standard while their fees are still pocketed. So, it is not at all surprising that as the pressure mounts some students are taken advantage of by those offering cheating services. As one young man recently explained on national television, it was cheaper to pay someone else to sit his exams than to fail and have to repeat and face his family back home.

A dehumanising experience

Student integrity is a growing issue and one that concerns staff greatly. Students struggle with getting adequate staff attention when over half of the teaching in Australian universities is now done by academics employed casually for just a few hours over a teaching session. Staff report pressure to mark leniently to protect the valuable income source and others admit that some students may well be getting away with cheating when there is no-one to catch them.

The outcome is that in the privatised public university these conditions mean that for too many international students any joy of learning and achievement has evaporated; their degree is purely a commodity. Their humanity too is lost as they are referred to as Australia’s third biggest source of export income, rather than guests in our country.

Jeannie Rea is national president of the National Tertiary Education Union, Australia. This is based on her recent article in the current edition of the Australian Universities' Review.