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A classroom full of dollars

Oct 21, 2019 • 16m43s

The boom in international education has seen students become commodities. It has also changed the way universities operate - chasing rankings and casualising teaching staff.

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A classroom full of dollars

104 • Oct 21, 2019

A classroom full of dollars

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, This is 7am.

The boom in international education has seen students become commodities. It’s also changed the way universities operate, chasing rankings and casualising teaching staff. Margaret Simons on what would happen if the bubble burst.

[Theme ends]

Archival tape -- Unidentified female reporter:

“Australia is on track to become the second most popular destination for international students in the world..”

Archival tape -- Unidentified female reporter:

“A new report out today warns that Australia’s universities are too heavily exposed to China, and could suffer a financial blow if the number of Chinese students suddenly drops because of an economic downturn…”

Archival tape -- Unidentified female reporter:

“Australian universities are so heavily dependent on the funding that comes from foreign students.”

ELIZABETH:

Margaret, the growth in international students coming to Australia over the last decade is well-documented, we know this. But just how big is education as an export product?

MARGARET:

Well it's enormous. It's the fourth biggest export industry in Australia. That's after coal, iron ore, and gas. It brings in $35.2 billion a year. And the two biggest markets for our education are China and India. Chinese students represent about a third of the total number of international students in Australia.

ELIZABETH:

Margaret Simons is a journalist and associate professor at Monash University. She wrote about the Chinese student boom in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs.

MARGARET:

The Chinese students tend to gravitate to our most prestigious universities, the so-called G8 of research intensive universities, which are all high in the international rankings. So that includes for example the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney. And at these universities, 43 per cent of commencing students for example at ANU, were from overseas. And of that 60 per cent were from China. So it's an enormous amount of revenue and it changes the character of the campus.

ELIZABETH:

So Margaret, what has this influx of international students from China meant for the Group of Eight universities that you describe?

MARGARET:

Well it's been an enormous boom to them at a time when government funding has been declining, particularly for research. And really the revenue from these international students is subsidising the research effort of those G8 universities. So the revenue comes in, the research output increases -- certainly in quantity, whether it increases in quality is hotly debated - and that means the university rises further in the international rankings which in turn brings in more Chinese students.

ELIZABETH:

The catch to that of course that there is the research side to a university and then there's the teaching side to a university, which is what these students are actually engaging with. What's happening there?

MARGARET:

Well the international rankings have very little to do with teaching. Obviously research does play into teaching, in the ideal university model the teaching draws heavily on the research that's being done… often doesn't work that way. And so the teaching is increasingly at universities done by an insecure workforce of casual and short-term contract employees. It's quite often the case that the students will never see the professor or whatever whose research has caused the rise in the rankings. So there's a disconnect there between the perception of what prestige of the university means for teaching, and what the reality is.

So for example at many G8 universities, University of Melbourne would be an example, the ranking is based enormously on the research work of the medical faculties and the STEM disciplines. If you're studying media and communications in the Arts faculty, the two really have little to do with each other.

ELIZABETH:

So I understand Margaret, how much are international students paying?

MARGARET:

The costs vary from course to course but typically at a G8 University, an international student would be paying around $40,000 a year for their tuition. And according to one analysis that was published earlier this year, the Go8 now earn more from Chinese students than they do from the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, which supports the teaching of domestic students. The question is of course, how sustainable is this business? And there's a lot of risk involved in it. Is it going to be continuing or are the universities, if you like, getting a sugar hit, and how well managed are they in terms of managing for a potential decline.

ELIZABETH:

So what about shifts that stretch beyond the universities?

MARGARET:

Well first of all the enormous boom in student housing. I think in any area around a G8 campus, you will see building developments going up of apartment blocks which are aimed directly at students, but overwhelmingly international students. Again many of the high rises in our cities also are largely occupied by international students.

ELIZABETH:

Micro apartments, small...

MARGARET:

Exactly. But as well I think, we usually think of migration policy as being very tightly controlled, border control and all the rest of it. And the federal government making decisions on who comes to this country and the manner in which they come, to paraphrase John Howard. But in the last few years, the last decade or so, we have had an enormous cohort of temporary migrants. Now that includes backpackers and people on short term work visas. But it also includes a large component, and a growing component, of international students who often stay on for a year or two after their study is completed under the so-called “Graduate visa program”, which is one of the big draw cards Australia has in this business.

And so that program of temporary migration is largely controlled by the universities. There are some basic checks done by the federal government but it's basically up to the universities to decide whether or not to let somebody into a course. And if they let into a course in most cases - unless there's some particular concern - that person will get a student visa.

ELIZABETH:

So why is the Federal Government willing to give the universities greater responsibility and power in this area?

MARGARET:

Well there's a long history to that. Some years ago now there were moves to try and make it harder for international students to get into Australia and the impact on the universities was dire. And there was a lot of lobbying that went on after that to try and say we should move to quality education, rather some of these dodgy vocational colleges that cropped up, and the universities can be trusted to manage that business. So that's one reason. Obviously it's an enormous export industry.

Archival tape -- David Coleman:

“The education sector supports high skill, high wage jobs. The exact kind of jobs we want to develop. International education must remain a key feature of our immigration system.”

MARGARET:

And certainly one of the advantages that Australia has in that competitive market is the fact that students can stay on for two years to four years after they've graduated and can work. Now this is a market advantage that Australia has, the UK I understand is moving to match us on that. So it's a very competitive export industry. And I think the impact on Australia's economy if the tap was suddenly shut off, would be huge. And of course the pressure on government to give more funding to universities would be greater as well.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Margaret, what do we know about the impacts that studying in Australia is having on those visiting students themselves?

MARGARET:

I teach Chinese students and they are very various. Some of them are diligent, some of them less so, just as I would say of my domestic students. And I think too often we talk about them as though they're a homogenous group. They’re anything but.

The University of Melbourne academic Fran Martin has done some long term ethnographic study of Chinese students and one of the most common complaints is that they come here and spend a lot of money and a lot of time wanting an international experience, wanting to make international friends, and in fact they don't, they very largely end up socialising with each other. And quite often you'll have classes in the more popular subjects for Chinese students that are 80 90 per cent full of Chinese students.

And we should say that the majority of them are women, 60 per cent of Chinese students that go overseas are women and they do report a greater sense of independence and a greater tolerance of difference, they're more likely to focus on career and resist family and social pressures to marry early and focus on family responsibilities.

ELIZABETH:

So what's it like in the classroom when you're teaching?

MARGARET:

Well as I say I often think that the obvious differences tend to obscure the ways in which Chinese students are pretty much like any other bunch of students. The obvious difference is English language skills. Many Chinese students, and we don't really know how many, clearly do struggle, particularly in their first semester here, with English language. And that changes the way you teach. I make an effort to speak slower, I try not to use vernacular or slang, I'm likely to put more words up on the PowerPoint slides just because I know they'll be going back to them later in order to try and absorb what I've taught. So that’s a clear difference.

ELIZABETH:

And is this a common complaint in the staff room, this complaint about English language ability as set by the University in terms of standards impacting what's possible within the classroom.

MARGARET:

Absolutely. Yes you will hear university teachers talking about that all the time.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Male:

“Many students seem unable to understand instructions or understand the material that was put in front of them. And there were also cases of students who apparently didn’t understand how to use a computer, in any... “

And a fair bit of skepticism about whether the English language standard which is measured by a thing called the IELTS score, the international English language testing scores the sort of standard.
IELTS itself the organisation that has that test recommends a score of at least seven to do linguistically demanding courses. Most of the G8 allow Chinese students in on a score of 6.5 or sometimes less.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm.

MARGARET:

And there's a fair bit of reason to doubt whether that score is robust as well. And this of course leads to cheating. And one of the most common complaints you'll hear in university staff room is about academic integrity, plagiarism and increasingly there is an enormous international business servicing not just students in Australia, but also in the US and the UK where you can hire somebody to write your essay for you. So it's not plagiarism, it's an original piece of work, just not done by the enrolled student. And that is very hard to catch. The universities use standard tools these days to detect plagiarism and they're pretty good but it's very hard to detect that sort of cheating.

ELIZABETH:

Did you find out what a fifteen hundred word essay is worth? What's it like to pay for...

MARGARET:

Well it depends what grade you want. So what I've been told and one of my Chinese students in an investigative journalism course actually did an investigation into this and ended up talking to both people who write the essays and students who've hired them to do it. And apparently most Chinese students will say ‘look, I don't want a distinction or high distinction because that looks suspicious because my results to now have been pretty mediocre. I just want to pass or I just want a low credit’ and it will be a sliding scale of fees depending on what result you want.

ELIZABETH:

And what of the actions of Australian universities to make that experience richer and more productive for the students coming to Australia? Are they doing enough?

MARGARET:

Well almost certainly not. So there is quite a lot of help provided now in Chinese language including student counselling. There is English language support almost always in my experience inadequate but it is there. But I don't think we have really thought through what the opportunity for both the international students but also the domestic students are in having this international cohort there. And I don't think enough is being done to really think through, well how do we take on our responsibilities to educate a fair chunk of the emerging middle class in China? I mean if you think about the opportunity that's there. And also for our domestic students to gain a better understanding of China. The cohorts aren't mixing enough and I don't think universities are doing enough to encourage that.

ELIZABETH:

Margaret what could happen to our universities if the flow of Chinese students does slacken. At the rate they were going now would they be able to survive?

MARGARET:

Oh I think they would survive the G8 universities are pretty robust and let's face it all they have to do is allow in a few more domestic students - they reject many domestic students, and they would survive. But it would be if we stopped it tomorrow it would be a crisis. In the short term you would see many of those casual and short term contract staff lose their work, lose their jobs. You would see some courses quite challenged in terms of whether they were viable, whether there were enough domestic students to continue to support them. So that would have to be reviewed.

Some of the building programs that have been going on would be looking dubious. Both as to whether the students are around to use those fine new buildings and also whether that's sustainable. But it's actually quite hard to find out how well prepared the universities are for this. Peter Varghese, who's our vice chancellor, was talking about whether there should be some sort of reserve fund of future funds as some of this money is being invested for the future. It's hard to find out whether that's being done, the answer is probably different in different universities.

ELIZABETH:

And are governments thinking about this, do you think?

MARGARET:

One hopes so. And certainly in terms of the geopolitics of our continuing relationship with China, one of the continuing concerns is that if tensions emerge in our relationship with China, that the government might either entirely prevent Chinese students from coming here, or more likely discourage them and that that will cause a dip. That is one of the risks that's built into this business.

I think one of the most unfortunate side effects of talking about Chinese students as though they are a commodity is losing sight of the fact that we're talking about young people. I'm sure there's plenty of complications to selling iron ore on the international market but it's generally, at its heart, it's fairly simple: you dig things up, you put them on trains, you ship them overseas. Here we're talking about young people. Young people from different cultures, young people with all sorts of challenges and aspirations. And of course many, many differences between them. But we tend to talk about them as though they're just a commodity. And I think, I fear that sometimes we treat them that way as well.

And I think it's an unfortunate side effect of seeing them as as a source only of dollars. And that speaking of them in the same bracket as we would iron ore or coal, that means that we're not really focusing on how to educate these young people how to interact with them and the possibilities that are in that both for the individuals but also for our influence on our region.

ELIZABETH:

Margaret, thank you so much.

MARGARET:

It's a pleasure.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The British government has formally requested a further extension on the Brexit deadline, pushing it beyond October 31st. The request was made in a letter to the President of the European council, Donald Tusk. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent a second letter with the request, explaining that Downing Street didn't want the extension. The European parliament had been expected to ratify the withdrawal agreement this week. And that is now in doubt.

And the Attorney General, Christian Porter, has moved to block laws in the ACT that decriminalise the possession of cannabis. Porter wrote to his territory counterpart on Sunday, saying he had received legal advice that while the ACT had removed the criminal component of the laws, they had failed to establish a positive right to possession, which meant there's no defence to the commonwealth law criminalising it.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, see you Tuesday.

The boom in international education has seen students become commodities. It has also changed the way universities operate - chasing rankings and casualising teaching staff. Margaret Simons on what would happen if the bubble burst.

Guest: Journalist and academic Margaret Simons.

Background reading:

China dependence in Australian Foreign Affairs
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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104: A classroom full of dollars