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Four Corners program raises concerns about international student sector

Last night’s Four Corners program Cash Cows has sent shock waves through Australia’s $34 billion university sector.

The program alleged that some Australian universities have become far too reliant on foreign fee-paying students to boost revenue, and have subsequently jeopardised the integrity and standing of Australia’s university sector, the country’s third-biggest export market.

Another concern raised was that some universities have been waiving courses’ English language requirements, established to ensure international students are set up for success both academically and socially.

The academics interviewed for the program contended that waiving requirements had not only led to a spike in academic misconduct but increased mental health problems associated with academic failure and social and cultural isolation for students.

Other interviewees were concerned that many international students were not interacting with “local” Australians or enjoying the lush and spacious campus grounds sold to them in glossy brochures. Instead they were placed in university campuses in major cities, at times unaware that the administrative centre for the university was in another state.

Cash Cows also suggested that waiving of language requirements had a deleterious effect on domestic students. The program interviewed a former Master of IT student at Murdoch University in Perth, Daniel Manganaro. He said he dropped out of a subject because the tutorial group he was in did not use English.

One of the universities mentioned in the program was The University of Tasmania. The University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Rufus Black, has committed to an “external review to test concerns about international admissions”.

“We want to be a university that is focused on high-quality education for qualified international students,” Professor Black said.

“We also have made it very clear within our new institutional strategy that we are taking a right-sized approach and that the march for constant growth is not part of our future.

“I am concerned, having seen the claims from Four Corners, that the changes we have been introducing to align to those two things have not had enough impact soon enough…

“Today I am constituting a senior group – led by our provost, the chief operating officer and the executive director quality and standards – to oversee admissions until our external review is complete and its recommendations are introduced.”

Professor Black also said the university would no longer be accepting Medium of Instruction (MOI) letters for international student admissions, documents that state that a student has received most of their learning instruction in a specific language, such as English. These letters can be used in lieu of completing English language testing.

University, student and professional associations have hit back at the program’s claims, with the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) labelling it as biased and ignorant of the benefit international students bring to Australia

“Each time the Four Corners producers focus on Australia’s international education sector they seem intent on finding as many negative angles as possible. Any media outlet can string together a group of disaffected academics, students and even education agents,” said the CEO of the IEAA, Phil Honeywood.

“The fact that the program’s producers and reporters continually choose to ignore the incredibly positive outcomes that Australia is achieving with our 450,000 overseas students is cause for real concern.”

The CEO of English Australia, Brett Blacker, also criticised the program’s unbalanced view.

“The English language academic entry requirements were the focus of a particular attack from Four Corners on this occasion. However, no mention was made that only 18 months ago Australia significantly toughened up its English language entry standards. This included direct entry pathway agreements which are now subject to stricter controls by the national regulator. These regulations are now regarded as some of the most stringent in the world.”

Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Margaret Garner, told Four Corners that Australian universities are a success story and data backs this up.

“There is overall evidence that, in fact, the system holds up. It has good entry standards, it has good standards in terms of what it takes to successfully complete a degree,” Professor Gardner said.

“And there is evidence that we are admitting students who are able to succeed at about the rate that is really right for having a high-quality education system in Australia.”

Mr Honeywood and Mr Blacker also attacked the program’s producers for editing out much of Professor Gardner’s interview.

“With this latest program, the Chair of Universities Australia, Prof. Margaret Gardner, willingly provided an extensive interview which the producers chose to make significant and detrimental cuts to in the editing room,” they said in a joint statement.

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2 comments

  1. So the universities claim that there are “incredibly positive outcomes that Australia is achieving with our 450,000 overseas students.” But does that justify brushing the problems shown on Four Corners under the carpet? It’s a very defensive, not to say dismissive, attitude to the criticisms.

    • Correct. There are some incredibly positive outcomes for international students: pathway to migration and massive income for the tertiary education sector. It’s business and Australian universities are happy to oblige.

      During the course of my degree I have met many students who fit the category of having limited English skills and are far less able than required of undergraduate standard. They are willing and desperate to do anything to pass.

      Whether or not these students manage to find ongoing work in their field upon graduation is altogether another thing. There are many driving taxis, working in cafes and in the cleaning industry.

      The buck stops with universities. It’s disingenuous of these universities to claim otherwise. It brings us ALL down. I feel my degree is devalued.
      So,what are they doing about it?

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