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Students: Canberra views – metropolitan reality November 29, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

Amidst the hubbub of the federal Opposition political ‘meltdown’, the first report into the uproar over international student welfare of a few months ago slipped quietly into view.  Sadly, it will do little if anything to calm the nerves of students themselves, current or prospective, and its recommendations do nothing but tinker with the present settings that are in many ways the root of the problem.

The main lesson is that Australia’s politicians and their public servants seemingly know little if anything about the inner workings of what they keep trumpeting as Australia’s third biggest export.  Provocatively, it might be said that the Canberra collective knows far more about the few hundred political irritants known as asylum-seekers than they do about the now almost 300,000 fee-paying international students who have entered the country legally and voluntarily and who have the potential to boost national productivity at a time when such stimulus is greatly needed.

As a case in point, the terms of reference for the report specifically framed the Indian student experience, yet nowhere in the document are the number, scope and level of Indian students detailed even though they are now the second largest single group.  That points also to a situation where for this committee all international students are the same.  At a superficial level that is true in that basic services and support need to be guaranteed, but as even this report suggests the cultural specifics related to any group need careful attention.

Summed up, perhaps too baldly, the report concludes: international students need to know more about personal safety in Australia and should get personal information packs to achieve this; the rules and regulations need to be tighter and the new regulator in the offing will solve much; overseas agents are the main source of the problem because they use unscrupulous tactics; there should be a review of immigration and work conditions with a little more flexibility allowed in individual cases; and a uniform implementation of transport concessions to international students will go a long way to resolving matters.

This all smacks of a recent comment I overheard from a senior administrator overseeing international students for one organization – for him, Indian students needed to act like Australians while they were in the country!

Even considered in their more subtle forms, the views expressed in this report are breathtakingly simplistic. The section on ‘social inclusion’, for example, is really about how students are or are not inducted into their institutions and localities.   The two are vastly different.  Yet there is zero investigation about the social reception accorded students, about how heavy concentrations of students in major areas are perceived; about the work patterns that put students into risk categories (like taxi driving, late night petrol station work, and convenience store service in vulnerable late night entertainment areas); about how accommodation availability is interlinked to particular urban social profiles; about how financial pressures have a direct bearing on a student’s lifestyle; about how these students experience in microcosm the problems faced generally by multicultural Australia.

An important part of this lack of knowledge concerns the apparent non-investigation of the full range of services offered or not offered by the range of providers from secondary schools up through universities.  One key problem begins with the $15 billion income figure bandied about by officials of all sorts who regard it as a profit figure.  In reality, it is a gross income figure that bears little or no reality to the operating costs incurred by institutions.  In short, very few institutions could report straightforwardly that the business is a significantly profitable one and, indeed, there is a case for saying that it should not be hugely profitable.   For a lot of universities for a long time, international fee income was a cash flow opportunity to paper over operating shortfalls brought on by mainstream funding squeezes.

The net result was that although there was money coming in, there was little of it available to provide adequate accommodation advice, counseling and social inclusion services, legal and tenancy backup, social welfare support and general development.  Even in prominent institutions with a few thousand international students, the specifically dedicated support service staff were minimal, and in general such staff were overwhelmed by the overall escalation in numbers brought on by the effective doubling of domestic student intakes with the addition of foreign students.

None of this appears anywhere in this report, and the responsibilities of the current providers is downplayed to a significant degree.  It must be said that a lot of providers over recent years have awoken to the importance of background support and have profited by providing it, but the pattern is variable to say the least.

The committee report puts the onus on the regulator (even though the new one has yet to be formed) and on the re-education and registration of the overseas agent ogres, but almost nothing on the responsibilities of direct providers.  For example, what about a draconian rule demanding that all providers spend a minimum of, say, 15% of the gross income they generate from international students on the direct provision of services to those students?  That would at least focus attention and flush out the real economics in all this.

The report indirectly references another organizational problem: the plethora of activity sparked by the bashings of Indian students, all of which activity seems to be virtually uncoordinated.  There is yet another parliamentary inquiry into international education about to report; the Act under which all international education is to be conducted is being revised with all providers to re-register by late 2010 in the absence of any newly defined guidelines; the federal government’s key department, according to this report, is reluctant to criticize the performance of state-based regulators when the lack of symmetry and national action is an obvious issue; and the federal Government has just announced that responsibility for international education will transfer from Education to Austrade.

That last move symbolizes just how threadbare the current approach has become.  Essentially, this report says that the commercialization of international education is at the base of the overall problem, yet the Government has now switched responsibility for that education to a trade commercialization body.  In India, certainly, that switch will confirm in the minds of many that while Australia now at long last is investing in scholarships and research collaboration, at heart the carpet bagger approach prevails.

It seems now we are developing a Jekyll and Hyde approach to international education, and that cannot be allowed to happen.  The real value in all of this for Australia is long term and demonstrated unequivocally by the ongoing goodwill created by the long defunct Colombo Plan. Australia’s best regional friends came from leading figures having great educational and social experiences in Australia.  Even though the numbers now are massively greater than in that more elite scheme, the principle remains the same.  It is just a huge pity that this present reporting Committee was unable to amass more insightful information before producing such an anodyne report that will do nothing to calm the atmosphere in places like India.


1. Amy - December 3, 2009

The marketing function of international education has been transferred to Austrade, the policy function is remaining with the Department of Education.