Opinion- 29 August 2009

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Michael Wesley

The Threat to Australia's Reputation in International Education

Margaret Gardner


 pdf file-available from Australasian Science


Margaret Gardner, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's vice-chancellor, last week challenged the conclusions in a Lowy Institute's policy brief, Australia’s Poisoned Alumni: International Education and the Costs to Australia, which warns that problems of the quality of course offerings as well as questions regarding the wellbeing of international students should be of real and immediate concern.


According to Professor Gardner: "This is a story of regulatory failure or what has become known as government failure," and sheets the blame largely to the private vocational providers and inappropriate migration policies. She further claims neither the university sector nor its funding share is responsible for the worsening perception of Australia's tertiary education sector. At fault are the regulators who have failed to maintain sufficient oversight of the fast growing private vocational sector, and that in turn is the result of  migration and education becoming linked overly closely.


Michael Wesley is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute and the author of the Institute's twenty-page policy document.


In Dr Wesley's view: "Tertiary institutions face incentives to maximise income from foreign students, [and as a result] some have lowered language standards and cut costs on student welfare and service provision. [In addition] many foreign students in Australia face problems of social isolation, labour exploitation, and criminal violence. Attacks on foreign students and the poor standards of some education providers have created diplomatic problems for Australia in important bilateral relationships."


To rectify the problems Dr Wesley recommends that: "Public funding for tertiary education should be reviewed to remove the incentive for institutions to maximise earnings from international education." But in partial agreement with Professor Gardner he recommends that "education institutions need to be subjected to much greater oversight of
quality, affordability, value for money, and provision of student welfare", and this should be undertaken through Ombudsmen who "should be established and provided with real power to investigate and make recommendations. Stricter oversight of overseas student recruitment, working conditions, and foreign student integration measures is needed".


Significantly however, Professor Gardner appears to want to absolve the public tertiary institutions of any shortcomings with regard to their educational provisions:


The explosion in the numbers of private vocational education providers, the paucity of facilities and resources offered by many of these new entrants and the fact that many had enrolments that were overwhelmingly or entirely international all give evidence that the issue is regulation of entry by new educational providers and more careful application of incentives for entry provided by migration regulations. The reputation of Australian international education has been built by the quality of long-term, predominantly public or not-for-profit educational institutions with generations of positive alumni. The risk to that reputation has come largely from recent for-profit providers of a vertically integrated migration service.


Not to acknowledge that the increasing reliance of our tertiary public institutions on funding from overseas student fees and that in turn has affected the administrative policies of our universities is to deny the obvious.


Note the following Wikipedia entry for Australia's oldest university The University of Sydney (46,000 students in 2008):


The four largest faculties by (2007) student enrolments are (in descending order): Economics and Business; Arts; Health Sciences; Science. Together they comprise 57% of the University's students. Each contains a student enrolment over 5,000, and they are indeed the only such faculties. It is notable that the Faculty of Economics and Business, disproportionately to other Faculties consists of about 49% international students, whilst the University-wide average rate is about 22% (2008).


And in the case of The University of Melbourne in 2008 of its 35,500 students 28% are listed as international.


Considering how finely balanced our universities are with respect to income versus expenditure, international student proportions of  22% and 28% carry highly significant clout.


The figure and table below showing overall statistics are taken from the Lowy Institute's report and are self-explanatory.



ELICOS = English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students


Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web