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Foreign students in Australia struggle in a time of crisis

By Peter West - posted Monday, 22 June 2020

A virus from Wuhan in China has changed our daily lives in the space of a few months. China says it has gone to a 'war footing' to deal with a new outbreak of the virus in Beijing. Here is a reality check: it isn't over yet. Will we ever get back to normal? Brazil and the USA suffer worst, their leaders denying reality. US President Donald Trump, having called the virus a hoax and a plot engineered by his opponents, is planning large rallies again with no regard for the social distancing many of us are trying to live by in the time of the virus. "Hope springs eternal in the human breast", said the poet Alexander Pope. But the mayor of Seoul in Korea says that hopes of a return to normal any time soon are a fantasy. Korea has enacted strict controls, clever technology and tough measures which appear to have given Koreans some measure of security. Other countries seem to be trying to blunder and bluster through. Their chances of success seem slight.

Universities in crisis.

Here in Australia, many parts of society are struggling to survive. One of these is the university sector. Our Australian universities are in crisis. This hardly seems an exaggeration. They have grown dependent on foreign students. A pilot scheme has been announced to bring some three hundred-odd students to two Canberra universities for July. But serious re-enrolment of foreign students cannot start until 2021 - at earliest. It seems Australia's borders will substantially be shut for this calendar year, in any case.


"My God, how the Money Rolls In!" seems to have been the theme of Australian universities in the last ten years or so. At least it was, according to the pundits like Salvatore Babones now writing in the media , wagging their fingers and saying "The chickens have come home to roost". Before the virus hit, foreign students were about a third of all university places, said The Economist. Many students have gone home to their own countries or remain here, struggling to get work, find accommodation and scrounge for food. There have been long lines at soup kitchens in scenes we last saw in the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, universities are crying poor. They are laying off many of the casual staff they employed in rosier times. And they are begging the Federal Government for money. And remember that universities employed people to clean offices, tidy gardens, and of course they had a vast array of clerical and administrative staff. These were mostly officious Pooh-Bahs who drove around in university cars, had meetings about rules, regulations and policies, and told academics how to teach and what to put in their subject outlines.

What were the causes?

Commentators will doubtless spend many hours analysing where we went wrong. Some have pointed to the incremental growth of funding problems. The following is a brutal summary. Universities were established by State Governments. Prime Minister Menzies gave them Federal funding, which allowed for great expansion. Then after 1972 came more changes. The Whitlam Labor Government made university education free. Since then, Labor and Liberal Governments have brought in a HECS debt that students must pay back. Federal funding has been repeatedly cut back, academics say. And universities have looked hard for foreign students and charged them substantial fees. These students, I'm told by student friends, get money from wealthy parents or arrange loans from financial institutions in their own countries. Asian kids work hard, driven by 'Tiger Mothers' in the style described in the book of that name by Amy Chua.

Many successful foreign students stay here to take jobs and work for four years or so. A helpful government website explains how to apply. How can a struggling Aussie kid manage to get productive, satisfying work these days, when foreigners are invited to stay, and already, many jobs have disappeared?

The case of teacher training


Universities have become enormous institutions of mass production, far beyond the imagination of those of us wide-eyed innocents who entered the Great Hall of Sydney University in 1963, as I did. Universities have hoovered up students who once had separate training (or education, if you like). Teacher education is a prime example. I remember going to many conferences in the seventies, hearing academics arguing for teacher education to be brought into the universities. "Student teachers must rub shoulders with other students", was the crux of the argument. Years later, most students barely meet anyone from other faculties and they don't rub shoulders with any of them much unless in the bus or the cafeteria. Teacher education moved from lowly teachers' colleges to high-status universities. It has not improved. One example: the amount of music education primary students got was cut back year after year. One music lecturer at my then university documented this carefully around the year 2004. The same can be said for most subject areas: a compulsory course in Australian history for primary teacher education students was cancelled permanently while I was on study leave. Teachers are not better educated and teachers complain more than ever that students emerge ignorant, with not enough practical experience. The complaints are mostly accurate.

The same arguments can be made about nursing.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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