Passing the buck on international students

By Alexandra Hurley
cleaner sweeping moneybags under carpet

This article is part of our October focus on institutions – you can access more content from this issue here. 

By Alexandra Hurley

The government and education providers seem ready to offer the world to potential international students, but in reality, the infrastructure provided to them is still riddled with unfairness. The government’s promotion of international education in Australia is carried out by their “Future Unlimited” brand, which is part of Austrade. A current marketing technique being utilised is called “win your future”, in which students attempt to win a year of free tuition in Australia by creating an online postcard, demonstrating why studying at an Australian university would help them to carve out a better future. In one week the competition had 4646 entries, and close to 150,000 visits. Future Unlimited states on its website that its marketing aims to move “the conversation beyond lifestyle and affordability, and focuses on the outcomes of an Australian education” adding that it “reassures students, and their parents, that their investment in an Australian education will be returned in the form of better career and life opportunities; it implies global career options; and reflects the idea of pathways”.

Yet the affordability of an education in Australia should not be overlooked, nor obscured. Australia is currently the most expensive country for international students to live in and study. Tuition fees and living costs for international students have increased 166 per cent over the past decade. Concession cards, including travel concessions, are not available to international students in New South Wales and Victoria, unlike their Australian counterparts. A 2009 Senate review of the welfare of international students found that international students lack knowledge about their rights in Australia, and this leads to their exploitation. This is further exacerbated by language difficulties, the cost of living and ambiguous visa situations.

The competitiveness and success of Australia’s higher education system is linked to dubious promises of migration pathways

The international education system is the second highest earning industry after coal and iron ore in Australia. In 2009, export revenue derived from international education peaked at 17.7 billion. There was a “savage collapse” in revenue in the years following, due to publicity surrounding attacks on Indian students, and costly visa requirements and tuition fees. However, it is still a lucrative industry, worth $14 billion annually. Each student spends an average of $42,000 per year on tuition, and more again on living expenses. It is an increasingly important industry that supports 100,000 local jobs.

The Australian Government is becoming increasingly reliant on the income from international students, due to the ambiguous future of natural resources. The International Education Advisory Council (IEAC) was formed in 2011 to advise the Australian Government on strategies to develop and expand the industry. In a report complied for them by The Boston Consulting Group, the government was advised to work towards an increase of 800,000 additional students from China, and an additional 340,000 Indian students by 2020.

International students are often ill-informed about their rights. Exploitation frequently occurs in the workplace

In June 2013, there were 379,214 international students enrolled in higher education. Compare this with the 48,856 people who have arrived by boat and have sought asylum, since 1976. The government and media focus on these two groups does not seem to be proportionate. The competitiveness and success of Australia’s higher education system is linked to dubious promises of migration pathways, a high driver for international students’ choices. The government continues to attract increasing levels of international students, but does not ensure that adequate support and information is provided to these students.

International students are often ill-informed about their rights. Exploitation frequently occurs in the workplace, particularly in labour industries. International student cleaners are often paid as little as $15 an hour, despite a union-backed starting wage rate of $24.35, which most Australian cleaning workers are paid. A case was raised in the Senate inquiry of an international student, paid $1.26 per hour by a security firm during the Australian Open in 2008, who was awarded nearly $120,000 in penalties and back pay. In 2011 there was a case of two 7-Eleven workers who were paid less than half the hourly rate. Justice Hawkins said in her judgment, “the defendants made out that they were doing them a favour by only recording half the hours worked, which made payslips look like the employees were receiving double the flat rate they actually received.” The students do not ask questions in fear of loosing their jobs or their visas. In the 2009 Senate review, Ms Bissett, from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), suggested that to progress to a fairer system for students, the government must “seek the removal of the strong link that exists at the moment” between education and migration. She added that for international students “the migration purpose is distorting the study purpose.”

The growth that is sought in this idustry must be realised in a responsible manner. The government and education providers should give adequate support and information to students about what to expect whilst studying in Australia, including work rights and the cost of living. The government has a further responsibility to audit tertiary education providers, as during the 2009 Senate inquiry, certain providers were exposed as having administration bodies that contained “no one with any education background at all”. Ms Simmons, from TAFE Directors Australia, noted education providers need to be monitored, as during the inquiry, an example arose where one education institution was in fact owned by a cleaner. She added that arrangements like this are “not uncommon”.

In spite of these findings, Abbott is currently looking to loosen the restrictions around visa requirements for international students, in an effort to return to the $19 billion revenue generated in 2009. One big change proposed will be extending streamlined visa processing beyond the university sector to a list of 22 yet unnamed TAFEs and private providers. Regulation needs to be upheld in this area to prevent further manipulation of students. This change would also see a drop in revenue for universities, in place of the cheaper TAFE alternatives.

The Overseas Students Ombudsman was established in 2011, and is overseen by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Mr. Asher. He noted that it “is an important service for an often vulnerable group” and that it signified that “students who are the victim of unfair or unreasonable action by private education providers now have a free, independent and impartial complaints service”. The Overseas Students Ombudsman received 588 complaints in its first year. Due to Machinery of Government changes, these issues will now be subject to the DIICCSRTE (Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education). The overseas Students Ombudsman is crucial in offering an independent review outlet for students, but more work needs to be done in informing prospective students of the realities of the costs involved and their rights and migration prospects.

Click here to see how 10 different universities advertise to international students.

Alexandra Hurley is passionate about human rights, international law and migration. Her passion developed after she volunteered for five years with Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning. She has lived in Spain and Ecuador and is a student of Arts (International Studies)/ Law at Deakin University.