Higher education in Australia has become an important industry. But the hunt for tuition fees comes at the expense of quality: Many students speak hardly any English – and still pass their exams.
Room 11 at the Business School of the University of Sydney. A good 150 first-year students are struggling through the trials and tribulations of international monetary policy. The lecture is like a plenary session of the United Nations. About half of the students are from abroad. In the back row, feet comfortably spread across three seats, lounges Kim Chung, a lanky 19-year-old from China who cares much more about his iPad than India’s central bank.
“In China, everyone is just rushing around trying to make as much money as possible. Here in Australia, you try to enjoy life. That’s why it was my dream to come here. Everything is much more relaxed here and you’re happier.”
Kim is one of 400,000 international students attending Australia’s universities – and helping to keep them afloat financially. Because there is less and less public funding for the higher education sector, Australian universities are accepting more and more students from abroad – in exchange for astronomically high fees: up to 100,000 euros for the most expensive degrees. But in the race to attract lucrative international students, accountability, diligence and academic standards are visibly falling by the wayside.
“Students are taken advantage of, students lie, cheat and try to bribe lecturers. And professors are pressured to ignore all these problems.”
His business card says only “civil servant.” Robert Waldersee, however, is a specialist in matters of felt. His clientele at the independent Commission against Corruption are otherwise bribed politicians or business bigwigs. In his latest report, however, Waldersee examined Australia’s universities – and found several skeletons in the closet. Starting with the agencies that recruit foreign students for Australian universities. Whether in China, India or Malaysia, nowhere was above board.
“Every university is dealing with corrupt student recruitment agencies. They falsify applications and test scores – often along with students. Visa fraud is commonplace. When unis had the documents submitted to independent reviewers, they found that the reviewers had also been bribed by the agencies.”
Unis pay bonuses for each student referred
In the U.S., a code of conduct prohibits agencies from recruiting international students for universities in exchange for money, both at home and abroad. Not so in Australia, where universities pay premiums for each student they refer, averaging about 1,500 euros. There are also many good jobs outside the university. Industries like Scaffolders sydney are booming at all times. Insiders estimate that 200 million euros a year go from Australian universities to overseas student placement agencies. Money that these agencies receive in addition to thousands of euros they take from students as a “contact fee.” A history professor at the University of Sydney, who wishes to remain anonymous, speaks of “selling out education.” No one cares about quality anymore, he said, only quantity.
“When these agents work on commission, they are only interested in sending as many students as possible. The risk of manipulating qualifications and telling other lies to meet quotas in the process is obvious.”
Education is Australia’s third largest source of revenue, worth 13 billion annually. Only mining and tourism bring in more money. But overseas students have no idea that Australian universities pay capitation fees for them, nor do Australian taxpayers, who help fund domestic universities.
With promotional videos and glossy brochures, study abroad agents sell Australia as a leisure paradise and academic hotbed. They promise students that it would be no problem at all to find a cheap apartment or a well-paid job in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. Once in Australia, however, the reality is different.
“They didn’t pay me for two, three weeks. I survived without money. No money.”
Sanjeed Malik is tired and he is angry, his hands as dirty as his grubby blue overalls. The 25-year-old from Mumbai, India, has actually been studying economics at the University of Sydney for two years, but he sits more often on the assembly line of a recycling company than in the lecture hall. Sanjeed needs the money. Tuition fees, rent, living expenses – it all costs him more than 30,000 euros a year. And his sleep.
“I have to come to work at eight in the morning seven days a week, but I also need a break once in a while. If I don’t start until after nine, then I don’t get paid. But I need the job, so I don’t say anything. Students better keep their mouths shut.”
Sumit Purdani, a friend of Sanjeed’s, has long been fed up. “We study abroad students are exploited,” complains the IT student from Sri Lanka. Language barriers, too much overtime for too little money: those who offer casual jobs know that international students are short of cash and – without much question – accept any job they can get. They are paid accordingly. Sumit works nights as a window cleaner for a measly eight euros an hour. Black and far below the pay scale.
“We students bring the Australian government a lot of money. That’s all they care about. How we’re treated here – nobody cares. ‘You can pay? Welcome to the West!’ And then the students are milked like cows.”
In the catacombs of Sydney Central Station. Commuters are going to work, students are on their way to university. Right by the main exit, next to timetables and advertising posters, hangs a bright red poster that reads, “Free Legal Aid – Students welcome.” Four times a week, lawyers give free legal aid to clients who can’t afford a lawyer – including students. Joanne Shulmann is an employment law specialist, her office just two bus stops from Sydney University. Her waiting room is full. But international students have never come to her:
“Most international students, especially from Asia, are far too intimidated to take legal action. Not against university placement agents who have made them false promises, and certainly not against unscrupulous employers. Because they threaten them: If you resist, your visa will be cancelled and you will have to leave the country.”
Both are lies, but effective. Shameless landlords claim similar things to keep study abroad students from complaining about the size, condition, and certainly the price of their housing. Housing in Australian college towns is scarce, coveted and expensive. Art student Jacqui Swanson is glad she can stay with relatives in Sydney. That’s because many international students are literally stuck in completely overcrowded shared flats for often 200 euros a week.
“Most of the time, four students are squatting in bunk beds in tiny rooms. There are often eight to ten tenants in a two-room apartment, because often two also sleep in the living room. It is impossible to study in peace and then pass exams. In extreme cases, students even live on sealed-off balconies.”
“Out of campus, out of mind,” complains lawyer Toby Archer, who gives free advice on rental matters at “Legal Aid” in Sydney. He gives unis a straight six in the “duty of care” department:
“In terms of student accommodation, the higher education sector just looks the other way. No wonder many are being financially fleeced. It’s time Australian universities addressed this problem. Otherwise, students will think twice about coming here.”
Student feeding in the dining hall at Monash University Melbourne. While half the campus lines up at the food counter, Nadja Metz quenches her thirst for knowledge in the university library. After six semesters of business law, the 27-year-old German is already old news on campus. Although Nadja speaks fluent English, she enjoys a few privileges as an international student:
“As foreign students, we get special permission during exams, so we’re allowed to take half an hour longer if it’s a three-hour exam. The exams are then corrected a bit more leniently. People are more lenient with us in other ways, too.”
Most study abroad students come from Asia
New Zealand, Sweden, Canada – Nadja’s fellow students come from all over, but most are from Asia: China, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam or Hong Kong. But there is one thing that seems strange to Nadja: She never gets to talk to her Asian fellow students because most of them speak almost no English. But her Asian fellow students pass the exams just like she does. Despite their language difficulties.
“For Monash University in Melbourne, the Asian students are a source of income. That means these people bring them money, and that’s why they also try to make life more pleasant for these people and to make it so that other people follow suit afterwards.”
“It has nothing to do with fair, just profit,” grumbles Alex McKinnon, one of Nadja’s former lecturers. He left the university last year because he was tired of handing out diplomas to students who often had no idea what his lectures were even about.
“It’s not my job to help students who have 65 grammar and spelling errors on the first page of a term paper. I’m not there to teach them basic English. But the shocking thing is that these students still get through their courses successfully.”
Anyone who wants to study in Australia must first take the English test, an exam that more than 90 percent of all Asian student applicants nationwide fail with a bang. Several times. But there is a loophole: a 20-week English course at the university. For an extra fee, participants are allowed to start their studies at the same time and never have to take another English test – regardless of whether they have mastered the language or not. Iris Chan and Josie Ho from Beijing, urban planning students at the University of Sydney, attended the course. Only ten out of 90 participants, they say, passed it.
“One of my Chinese friends says the English language always gives him a headache.” – “Most Chinese students keep to themselves. They will never improve their English.”
Nurses who don’t understand drug package inserts, law students with no understanding of the law: lecturers see the consequences in black and white day after day at Australian universities. And many are seeing red.
“These students’ emails or essays are often impossible to decipher. No trace of English proficiency. And these students are about to graduate. I find this appalling, I’m at a loss for words.”
Sarah is an online lecturer at Sydney University. At home, at the kitchen table, she corrects term papers. She won’t reveal what she teaches or her last name. Sarah prefers to let her study abroad students’ work speak for itself:
“As you see from some of these marks – those students have plagiarised more than 80 percent in their assignments.”
Out of 52 of the assignments, Sarah grades 34 “unsatisfactory.” Most were copied 1:1 from books or simply copied from the Internet. It’s a problem that has been getting worse for her and her colleagues for years, Sarah says, but that her faculty doesn’t want to know about. After all, her course alone brings the university close to 300,000 euros just from the fees paid by international students.
“There is an unwritten law not to let these students fail. Nobody talks about it, but I am instructed to be especially accommodating to the students, to let them repeat their exams – if necessary – several times. Even if the semester is already over.”
“There are attempts to bribe academics”.
Often, exams of study abroad students are re-corrected and changed from “fail” to “pass” – without the knowledge of the course instructors. Or it is ordered from above that at least 90 percent of students must pass a particular course. Those who still fail beg for a fourth or fifth chance – or, as corruption watchdog Robert Waldersee has found out, try to get a little help in the process.
“There are attempts to bribe academics. Lecturers have so much power that the higher education sector literally invites corruption. Australian unis have a conflict of interest: they want more and more foreign students and their money, but are visibly softening their educational claims as a result.”
The pressure on overseas students is enormous. Most don’t come to Australian unis for a fortune to return home afterwards. Many want to stay and get what urban planning student Iris Chan wants: a permanent residency permit. For Iris, her university diploma is the ticket to Australia – for her and her family in China. Cost what it may.
“Last year I had to pay 16,000 Australian dollars per semester, this year it’s 18,000. All my relatives worked hard in China for that. They say, ‘You stay in Australia and get a residency permit. Without that, you don’t need to come back to China.”
No academic likes to hear it, but higher education in Australia has become a commodity, more profit-driven and less knowledge-driven. Without the millions in fees from international students, some universities would have shut down long ago. In order to have more graduates than their global competitors, standards have been lowered so that more students graduate – often at any cost.
Australia’s universities are in danger of degenerating into intellectual breeding grounds, churning out international students who are of no use to the local job market. After all, Australia’s higher education sector cannot afford students from abroad who expect to be able to buy a university degree in the long run.