Uni Daze pt 2: Foreign student revenue to help survive

What caused the influx of international students into Australian public universities?

Ask any domestic student with a Commonwealth supported place about group work with international students and the elephant in the room becomes apparent. International students are subsiding domestic students’ education which represents a possible conflict of interest. However, you might be labelled a ‘racist’ if you even allude to potential problems with language skills, visa ‘rorting’, plagiarism or soft marking.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, said this on weekend radio:

We’re subsidising domestic students from foreign students’ fees and from other forms of, I suppose, non-core activities—university business activities and so on—we don’t get enough money from the combination of student contribution and government to pay the full cost of teaching.

The influx of foreign students is a moral debate. It is important to separate this debate entirely from the immigration debate. Populist immigration policy taps into the underlying prevalence of xenophobia and racism in Australia. Such anti-social behaviours are not immune to the university classroom and often form due to poor education or pure self-interest.

International students are not necessarily a form of immigration. For the purposes of this article, it shall be assumed that foreign students reside in Australia on a temporary basis only to undertake their education.

Cultural diversity is extremely important at universities. Otherwise, one might find an abundance of Anglo Saxon private-schooled kids (whose secondary tuition is often financed by rich parents) filling up the lecture theatres!

Dr Nelson is a amiable person, but sitting through his National Press Club address infuriated this author! When he was Education Minister, he grappled with the problems caused by the stagnation of government funding.
He painted this picture ten years ago:

From the mid-1980s the Commonwealth encouraged Universities to find funds from other sources in order to ensure that the system, could continue to expand. Over the decade, income from fees and charges doubled mainly due to the conscious effort of Universities to attract more overseas students. The number of overseas students tripled. By 1999 revenue from fee-paying overseas students amounted to $805 million or approximately 10 percent of the sector revenue.

Between 1991-2000, Commonwealth funding dried up, forcing universities to seek ‘other income’ from other sources including international students. Domestic student revenue also increased significantly as local students paid more for their Commonwealth supported place. Universities lost income, whilst local students (who won their admissions based on academic merit) were saddled with a considerably greater debt burden. By 2009, international student revenue comprised $18 billion.

What are the percentages of international students?

According to journalists at the New York Times:

70 percent of full-time students undertaking an Master of Business Administration at the Melbourne Business School this year are from abroad. In the MBA program at RMIT University… 45 to 50 percent of students are international.

In 2009, 40.7 percent of Central Queensland University’s students were international students.

The Victorian Ombudsman cited these statistics:

The number of international students enrolled in onshore higher education courses at Victorian universities tripled between 2000 and 2009 to almost 67,000 students. In 2009, Victorian universities collected $1.16 billion from fee-paying international students, or around 20 per cent of their revenue.

Is there evidence of international students being given special privileges because they are fee paying?

There have been at least two studies specifically examining the available evidence. The reality is that no institution will stake their reputation and investigate the matter so it’s a moot point. More anecdotally, there’s little question international students aren’t treated as toughly as domestic students. However, one study suggests foreign students, particularly Asian students are highly adaptive to Australian university teaching and learning styles. International students may perform better academically than Aussies. Could our domestic students be ‘shit stirring’ out of envy?

The Victorian Ombudsman suggests:

Most of Victoria’s international students come from countries in Asia where English is not the first language. I am concerned that universities are not doing enough to ensure these students have the English language skills they need to study successfully in Australia.

Even a Four Corners documentary examined this in 2005, but the evidence was not overwhelming. Few students and staff had the guts to speak up, comprising Newcastle, Central Queensland and Monash Universities. Universities remain scared. In October 2011, RMIT University tried to prevent the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation (which sampled four Victorian universities) from occurring.

Where to now?

Forced into over-reliance of the model, Australian universities are now facing a raft of potential problems. Universities in the US and UK are Australia’s major competitors. Now Asian institutions are increasingly competitive, and the value of the Australian dollar doesn’t help matters.

Foreign students residing in Melbourne have been subjected to physical violence driven by racism and bigotry. To appease claims that the higher education sector encouraged ‘backdoor’ immigration, more onerous rules have been applied for student visas, with applications dropping by almost 20 percent. The financial collapse of some private colleges have ‘burnt’ some students.

Vice Chancellors are getting worried. In a strange twist, the last time this author heard former University of Queensland Vice Chancellor (and Group of Eight lobby group chief) Paul Greenfield, he was talking about how to tackle this difficult issue. It seems plausible that this existing pressure will now be taken to unprecedented levels, as fresh government policy will result in more first year university students entering this year than ever before!

Coming up next time…

In his final article, this blogger examines freedom of speech in Australian universities. Are academics and administrative staff muzzled? Why is freedom of speech in universities so important? Why is this particularly important for science and medicine?

Photo of international school by Dave Hodgkin.  Photo of Dr Nelson by Friends of Europe association. Photo of student studying by Sanja Gjenero.

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One Response to Uni Daze pt 2: Foreign student revenue to help survive

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