Universities enrol foreign students certain to fail

Universities across Australia have been accused of enrolling hundreds of thousands of foreign students solely for their fees, despite many being ill-equipped to undertake degree courses.

Over the past decade the number of overseas students undertaking university courses in Australia has rocketed by 60% to almost 325,000.

Now, in what academics call ‘the hidden secret’ behind a massive increase in foreign student numbers, the true situation involving those students has been exposed in a high-profile television report, which says Australian universities have been “waiving their own English entry standards in a bid to admit more high-paying international students”.

Prepared by journalists at the national Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the programme revealed what academics have known for years: Many Australian universities see foreign students, however ill-prepared for study they might be, simply as ‘cash cows’.

Academics told ABC they have seen record numbers of academic misconduct cases and more and more international students struggling – with some using phone apps to translate lectures.

The report, “When large numbers of students started failing, alarm bells started ringing for academics”, showed how the scandal has been kept hidden from the Australian public because academics feared they would lose their jobs if they exposed what was happening.

ABC journalists, however, tracked down several senior staff prepared to speak out. They described the consequences for students who enrolled in courses that cost as much as AU$40,000 (US$28,000) even though they were certain to fail.

But going public also had its consequences: Former Swinburne University of Technology lecturer Charles Reichman lost his job in Melbourne when he protested about what was occurring in his institution.

Responding to the ABC revelations, Professor Margaret Gardner, chair of Universities Australia and vice-chancellor at Monash University, told University World News that Australian student visas imposed English language standards as high as those in Britain and the United States.

In addition, she said, prospective students had to have a certain level of English proficiency that is assessed by international tests used around the world.

In fact, Gardner added, Australian universities often required a higher standard of English than that demanded by government visa conditions.

Analysis by Andrew Norton, higher education program director at the Grattan Institute, found that at undergraduate level differences in fail rates between overseas and local students were not as large as would be expected if command of English was a major factor.

But among postgraduates it seems lower English competency does cause much higher fail rates among the overseas students.

He concludes that Australia’s English language requirements for international postgraduate students may be too low – and are lower than recommended by one English language testing organisation – hence the fail rates are higher for that group.

However, Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said that many Australian university courses “require higher English language proficiency than the minimum standard required to obtain a student visa”.

She said: “Under Australian law, universities can also use evidence beyond the standard language tests when a student is a citizen of another English-speaking nation, has done their schooling in English, or has studied for at least five years in an English-speaking country.”

Exposing the scandal

Dr Bob Birrell, who taught sociology at Monash University in Melbourne for more than 40 years, has spent years documenting the enrolment scandal.

In a paper published on the Australian Population Research Institute webpage, Birrell describes how former government regulations requiring foreign students to prove they had enough money to maintain themselves in Australia had been relegated to the institutions enrolling them.

Likewise, federal government requirements that students met certain levels of English competency were also left to the universities to decide.

As Birrell notes, under the new “streamlined assessment procedures” issued by the government, universities were left to make their own judgement as to the English standards students needed for their proposed course.

Effectively, Birrell says, the universities were given “extraordinary leeway”: “They can do so free from any concern that a government authority will intervene.”

Even if an overseas student has struggled to complete a course because of poor English, Birrell says, he or she can then transfer to another university, or a vocational education provider, without any English language test.

“As for the academic preparedness of overseas students to cope with Australian university standards, there is no government guidance at all. It is left to the universities to make this judgement,” Birrell says.

Except for medicine, all that is required for enrolling in any undergraduate level course is a senior high school credential from any country.

“Similarly, in enrolling for a masters by coursework in business and management and IT, all that is required is evidence that the candidate has completed an undergraduate degree, again from any university in any country and in any field.”

Union demands accountability

Following the ABC broadcast, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) called for greater public accountability for universities in dealing with international students.

NTEU National President Dr Alison Barnes said universities were “desperate” to find alternative funding after successive governments had cut AU$10 billion (US$7 billion) from their budgets in the past seven years.

“It’s essential that we increase public investment to ensure our universities are not financially dependent on international student fee income,” Barnes said.

She said the vetting of international student enrolments should be examined to ensure that universities only enrolled those with the capacity to successfully complete their studies.

The union’s two highest priorities were now to ensure that “whistleblower academics” were properly protected, and to support students who might be “feeling under siege”, Barnes said.

“Our thoughts and support go with those students who are struggling to complete their courses, or who are stranded in the ‘shop-front ghettos’ that some universities have established, purely to ‘milk’ the international student market,” she said.

“International students who are inappropriately enrolled and inadequately supported are the victims here, not the problem. The problem lies with the behaviour of some university managements.”

Australia’s five student organisations also issued a joint release calling on Australian universities “to deliver better education and opportunities to international students, who pay extortionate tuition fees”.

Jackson defended the increased recruitment of international students, stressing that they enhanced Australia’s higher education system by “internationalising our universities, broadening the learning of Australian students and meeting rigorous standards”.

She said the students were highly valued and warmly welcomed in Australia, sharing their culture, language and life experience with Australian students – who reciprocated – “broadening Australian students’ insight and connections in a rapidly globalising world”.

Gardner added that international students make a profoundly valuable contribution to Australian universities and communities.

“The internationalisation they bring makes our universities larger, more diverse and more successful, both in education and research. They enhance the already high quality of our higher education system,” she said.

“The evidence is that international students complete their degrees and succeed at about the same rate as domestic students. That tells you that the overall national standards are sound.”