The influx of international students has numerous social and economic benefits, yet the increased commercialisation of Australian universities has called attention to the ways in which students are recruited, the government’s involvement with the sector through funding and legislation, English language standards for commencing students and how academic integrity is protected.
Australia is one of the most popular study destinations for international students worldwide, especially for students originating from the Asia-Pacific region. These students—over 550,000 as of February 2019—make an important contribution to Australia’s social capital, but also make a significant financial contribution to higher education institutions.
All Australian universities actively recruit abroad and now generate over AU$7 billion (~US 4.9 billion) in revenue from international student fees, motivated largely by revisions to federal funding over the past decade. In addition to funding challenges, the growing numbers of international student have raised concerns about the ways in which these students are recruited and whether they are truly prepared for academic success. In April 2019, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) released a damning report claiming some Australian universities waive entry standards resulting in a noticeable increase in academic misconduct cases. These trends leave the sector in a state of some uncertainty, requiring more rigorous monitoring of international student recruitment and academic support practices in Australia.
The pursuit of international students exists within a broader global trend of the commericalisation of higher education. Australian institutions face growing competition from universities in other countries to recruit international students. Despite offering world class education Australia has a high cost of living and relatively high currency exchange rate. This makes it difficult to attract international students, particularly those from developing countries.
In 2017 the Australian federal government capped funding for domestic student enrolments. As a result, strategic decisions by Australian universities are increasingly driven by economic factors, one being focusing on potential students in emerging markets such as South Asia. Since 2015 the number of students from India studying in Australia has more than doubled, and the number of students from Nepal has increased by 132%. The complex relationship between the influx of international students from South Asia and the financial incentives that prompt current practice at many Australian universities are epitomized in the recent ABC report titled “Cash cows.”
While students from these regions are often highly qualified and perform well academically, many also come from low socioeconomic backgrounds that make it more challenging for them to adjust to studying in Australia.
Australian international student fees are expensive by global standards and usually oblige students to work throughout their degree. This requires Australian universities to reconsider which international students are targeted and how they can be accommodated. Possible initiatives include revisiting the certification of financial resources available to support studies, exploring new student scholarships and incorporating international student support explicitly into university strategic plans.
English Language Standards
Under a streamlined visa processing in 2012, Australian universities were given greater autonomy over the application process and English language entry requirements. However, the ABC report spotlighted Australian universities such as Murdoch University, the University of Tasmania and Southern Cross University and suggested that these institutions accepted students below their published English language threshold. The challenges of supporting diverse student cohorts—particularly those from non-English speaking countries with lower English proficiency—exponentially increase the difficulty for university staff to support their academic success.
Issues related to lower English language standards are far reaching and can lead to higher rates of academic misconduct. Low English language thresholds also offer individuals looking for easy entry into Australia a “back-door” into the country. There is also a reputational risk— to individual institutions as well as to Australia as a destination for high quality education. With education as Australia’s third largest export, the federal government has a stake in working with higher education institutions to uphold acceptable English language entry standards.
Supporting Academic Integrity
Another challenge has been how to orient international students to standards of academic integrity. Contract cheating has become a hotly debated topic within Australian higher education. Educating international students about plagiarism and collusion has been an ongoing effort for decades, yet private tutors and companies also target international students to offer contract cheating services online and on-campus.
To be sure, international students are not the only cohort that cheats. However, recent research suggests students from non-English speaking backgrounds are more likely to engage in commercial contract cheating services. There are numerous reasons why international students do this, but difficulties associated with language proficiency and time management stemming resulting from the obligation of part-time work are conditions that often lead to cheating.
There is now proposed legislation that will allow the federal government to prosecute any person or organisation that provides contract cheating services. This is an interesting development still hotly contested across the sector, particularly due to concern for the impact this legislation will have on students. Yet even if the draft bill comes into effect, further work will still be required to educate all students about the risks associated with contract cheating.
The surprise re-election of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the May election will have a decisive impact on the future of higher education in Australia and how the sector internationalises. His government is unlikely to return to a demand driven system for funding domestic enrolments, thereby requiring institutions to continue looking at international students and offshore campuses as alternative sources of income. At the same time, however, Education Minister Dan Tehan has already indicated that the federal government will seek to toughen English language standards for prospective international students. This will create challenges for Australian universities and other higher education providers in the years ahead—funding will be tight and there will be close scrutiny of all practices relating to international students.
Andrew Kelly is the Manager for Learning Support at Edith Cowan University.