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They came, they saw, and they are not coming back - overseas students

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Wednesday, 11 August 2010

If you were a parent sitting in an Asian country would you use your hard-earned savings and send the apple of your eye off to study in Australia? Maybe you would if you thought that there was no better way that they could get a tertiary education or a better life. But if the chances of your child being able to work, even briefly, in Australia were being limited; if there was a chance that they could encounter serious violence; and if the quality of the education just wasn’t there; most parents would look elsewhere.

For a variety of reasons the appeal of Australia as a destination for foreign students has declined. At the same time other countries, such as the UK, the US and other Asian nations are starting to attract more foreign students.

There is much blame to go around. In part Julia Gillard and the Labor Government responded to concerns over population, immigration and sham colleges by tightening visa and migration rules. Both State and Federal Governments have also failed to adequately address the difficult issue of violence against foreign students.


For our part universities could do more in terms of services for foreign students.

There are some realities that all Australians will need to face up to in relation to Australian universities. First, the Australian government no longer provides all, or even an overwhelming majority of, a university’s funding. Second, fee paying foreign students provide a substantial part of a university’s income. Third, like anybody else who pays for a service or a product, these people have legitimate expectations. And fourth, many foreign students need support in relation to their proficiency in the English language.

But the most blindingly obvious reality, and one that Julia Gillard appears to have missed during her time as Education Minister, is that a decline in income from foreign students will lead to cuts elsewhere. To put it in another way, any business that experiences a diminution of one revenue stream will have to make cuts to its business or reduce services. Regardless, of what your thoughts may be on the question of whether universities should be run as businesses or not, the simple fact is that universities are financial entities like any other and an impact on one revenue stream has consequences.

Paradoxically, the losers when less foreign students arrive here, are the local Australian students. The impact of diminished revenue on what was an $18 billion industry is that the cross subsidisation of research, teaching and local student places will be diminished. This will likely impact the Rudd-Gillard Government’s plan to increase local participation in Australian universities. It may significantly affect rural and regional universities. With more teaching being done by casuals the quality of the education offered becomes more variable.

Universities Australia has pointed out that the recent decline will lead to job cuts. Access Economics has estimated that if foreign student numbers drop by 50 per cent then 62,000 jobs will be lost. Current trends are likely to be exacerbated. For example, Arts faculties across the sector tend to be poorly funded and staffed mostly by casuals or part-timers. Even a doctorate in a political science degree from a prestigious university will not guarantee you a full time job at an Australian university. It is a remarkable situation. Now that the law degree has become the generalist degree of choice, we’re even seeing senior political science academics trying to pass themselves off as law experts in order to get into a more secure field.

For our part universities could do a better job of integrating English language support services and skills training into their degree structures, particularly in those degrees dominated by foreign students. Most universities require foreign students to take a bridging course in English to give students a functional command of the English language. But studies in courses such as business and economics often require a highly technical level of English language competency.


In this case if a foreign student is having English language difficulties for these courses they can go and get informal assistance from the university studies skills centre. This is how it is at most universities. Unsurprisingly, not many students avail themselves of the service. Even so, this type of support is not focused on the particular discipline in which the student is studying.

As the mastery of technical language skills and more complex expression is the real problem facing many foreign students it then makes more sense to provide this type of English language training during the course of their degree in a formal way. It would be possible to integrate an English language component into the course itself.

Ultimately, if we are charging people money for a service or a product we have a strong interest in ensuring students get the best value for money out of our product. That is how we can develop a sustainable higher education market. For too long short-term thinking has dominated Australia’s approach to overseas students, with large sums of money spent on getting students here but comparatively insufficient resources devoted to support them once they are here.

We can halt the decline by addressing the legitimate needs and expectations of foreign students. Both the government and the universities need to work together to offer a better deal in the foreign student market otherwise the consequences will extend across the sector.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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