Reflections on ABC Four Corners investigation into Australia’s international education sector
If you watched last night’s Four Corners program I am sure you will have been as saddened as I was – at how some international students in Australia’s universities are being treated.
When I was at ACPET and was asked questions by journalists or overseas officials about Australia’s international education sector – I always commented on what a privilege it is to be chosen to educate people’s sons and daughters – especially when their parents send them to Australia for a better future. Those aren’t just words – that belief is central to why I work in this sector. And as a parent myself I can’t imagine how hard it must be to send your child away to another country to give them a better chance in life. Having watched last night’s show – some senior staff in our universities (and yes in other providers too) need to remind themselves of these simple truths.
So what did we learn:
- the University of Tasmania and Southern Cross University have been explicitly advertising English language waivers to recruit students with English language scores below published entry requirements. UTas has commissioned an independent review by Prof Hilary Winchester in response to the claims
- by contrast SCU stated that questions about English waivers “refers to sector policy and is probably best addressed to either Universities Australia or the Regional Universities Network”
- the most serious allegations related to Murdoch University. They engaged Indian student recruitment agent, OECC, even after receiving specific warnings about OECC’s practices from former Immigration officials. It was claimed that “a trove of emails seen by Four Corners show admissions staff being repeatedly asked by university management to admit students who did not meet the university’s published English entry standards.” It was also claimed that WA government officials tried to point out the risks to Murdoch University. The warnings do not seem to have been acted on. In fact, after some of these concerns had been raised emails were sent from management to admissions staff stating that it was “important to maximise our numbers to reduce our (the university’s) debt.” Murdoch enrolled 680 international students in early 2018 which was apparently a 92% increase on the previous year, and it is claimed that two-thirds of these students came from India. When senior academics subsequently raised concerns about the problems their students were having with their written English skills and other requirements of their courses (eg students who supposedly had IT degrees who barely knew how to operate a computer or what a USB was) a review was undertaken. No adverse findings were made; instead it appears staff were told they needed more cultural awareness training
- the risks associated with recruiting students from the Punjab in India and other high risk regions were discussed by a former Immigration official
- Swinburne University’s postgraduate course in construction law was also highlighted – with the lecturer who founded the course claiming that plagiarism increased as international student numbers increased – until it reached unprecedented levels in 2018. He claimed that he raised the matter with university management and in 2018 refused to mark an assessment which he was convinced was plagiarised. He was asked again to mark it and again refused. Despite receiving praise from the university for his work, earlier this year he was told he was not needed to teach the course. The university claims the matters are unrelated.
- a postgraduate business lecturer at RMIT aired his concerns about the lack of domestic students in his courses and the poor English skills of his international students
- students at both CQU and SCU campuses in various CBD locations were interviewed and they expressed their disappointment that there are no or very few domestic students in their courses and that as a result they do not have a chance to meet Australians or learn about Australian culture
- the impact of academic failure on students (in the form of both self-harm and suicide) was also referenced
- while no TEQSA officials appeared on camera, they were quoted as saying there was “little evidence to suggest compliance problems with English language requirements”.
If you teach international students – what can you do?
- Check in with your students and make sure you know how they feel – depending on the age of your students and how long they’ve been studying with you – consider contacting their parents to give them reassurance
- Make sure you have a good mix of local and international students in your classes
- If you have a relationship with agents who recruit heavily from the Punjab – if the relationships are active make sure you’re getting academically suitable students and if the relationships are inactive then consider severing them
What is likely to happen next?
- Given two of the five universities identified in the program (Murdoch and SCU) both stated that their admissions standards are consistent with national standards for international students, and their English language requirements are in line with those across the sector – it is hard to see how TEQSA can say there is no evidence of compliance problems in the sector. I note that direct entry English language requirements have been tightened recently but there were broader issues raised in the program and I suspect that the outcomes of the University of Tasmania’s review could end up leading further sector wide reforms.
- It is also hard to see how, on the evidence provided in the story, Murdoch University can avoid further scrutiny from TEQSA in relation to both its international student recruitment practices and its academic standards.
- I am not familiar with the tertiary education regulatory requirements in the United Arab Emirates (where Murdoch University has a campus) but I have some familiarity with the requirements in Singapore (where they also have a campus). I envisage that the regulators there will be seeking reassurances on academic standards and student entry requirements. It should be noted that these campuses are managed for Murdoch by Navitas (Dubai) and Kaplan (Singapore) and no claims were made against them in the story.
- Finally – the sector needs to keep in mind that ASQA is due to release its strategic audit of international education next month. It’s obvious from the cancellation decisions ASQA has been taking against CRICOS providers in the last 12-18 months that non-compliances have been found in the international VET sector. A strong but well-thought through response from both ASQA, TEQSA and the Minister for Education will be required if Australia is to avoid reputational damage associated with these concerning claims.