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Australia: opposition’s funding pledge comes with intled caveat

In the final week of the Australian federal election campaign, the Labor opposition party has warned universities its funding pledge would come with the expectation they address concerns within the international student cohort.

A series of funding cuts and freezes has has seen Australian universities increasingly cross-subsidise research costs with overseas student revenue. Photo: Pexels/ Brodie Miller

Labor has already signalled major changes to Australia’s international education sector

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, shadow education minster Tanya Plibersek reconfirmed her party’s commitment to reinstate the demand-driven system, which would provide $10 billion in revenue over ten years.

“What we want in return is for universities to consider the interests of their local communities”

“What we want in return is for universities to consider the interests of their local communities and the national interest when they are making decisions about how they expand, how they attract students, the sort of educational offering they make,” Plibersek said.

A series of ongoing funding cuts and freezes over the past seven years has seen Australian universities increasingly cross-subsidise research costs with overseas student revenue, and according to 2017 data, all but one university would have recorded a deficit without international fees.

In the first and so far only comment from either of the main Australian political parties after the Four Corner’s Cash Cows documentary, Plibersek maintained that “we don’t want to rip people off” or “develop a reputation as a hit and miss provider of university education”.

While it has not issued a public statement around the allegations of lowered English proficiency requirements for international students, the current Liberal-National coalition government has been aware of the concerns since at least February, The PIE News can now reveal.

In an email obtained by The PIE, education minister Dan Tehan requested all university vice-chancellors detail the support provided to international students. He also advised that he had requested further information and recommendations from the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority.

“It has been raised with me that some international students studying in Australia may not have the appropriate English language skills to actively and appropriately participate in a higher education course of study,” he wrote.

“I have also asked TEQSA to provide me with any information it has which points to a systemic failure in universities meeting their duty to not knowingly enrol an international student without the required level of English proficiency to successfully complete the course the student is enrolled in.”

The final week of the election campaign has also seen some of the major representative bodies issuing their wishlists to what they have called the “incoming government”.

In its Priority Directions 2 report, the Group of Eight supported re-investment in research, saying cuts had undermined universities’ ability to address challenges within the Australian community.

“Australian universities are ever more reliant on fee-paying students, private sector money and philanthropy to assist both domestic teaching and our research,” said Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson.

“If this continues unabated, then Australian research efforts will be overwhelmed by the scale of our international competitors in the decades to come.”

Included in its section on international engagement, the report called for “complementary policy decisions on staff and student visas” and the reinstatement of the Endeavour Scholarships, which were recently axed to make way for regional education incentives.

“If this continues unabated, then Australian research efforts will be overwhelmed”

Interestingly, the Go8 also urged the government to negotiate with the European Union for Australia to become a formal partner of Horizon Europe, just over a month after members of parliament in the UK highlighted “total uncertainty” around its continued involvement.

Currently expected to take power on 18 May, Labor has already signalled major changes to Australia’s international education sector.

At the 2019 Universities Australia Conference, Plibersek told delegates the current national strategy was “vague” and highlighted a need to reinvigorate the council overseeing its implementation.

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