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Australia: international sector hits back at ‘Four Corners’ allegations

Australia’s international education sector has refuted allegations of systemic English proficiency issues in the country’s university sector, in the wake of an expose by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners program.

A Four Corners report claimed Australian higher ed was being undermined by a reliance on international education revenue. Photo: PexelsA Four Corners report claimed Australian HE was being undermined by a reliance on international education revenue. Photo: Pexels

IEAA were not approached by the program makers, it has alleged

“Cash Cows”, which aired on Monday evening Australian time, claimed international students were undermining higher education because of universities lowering their English requirements to increase numbers and boost revenue.

Both the International Education Association of Australia and English Australia slammed the program, saying it undermined the integrity of the country’s higher education system and calling it restrictive in its coverage.

“The problem lies with the behaviour of some university managements”

“Yet again we’ve got this constant attack by the Four Corners program, in particular, on the international education sector,” said Phil Honeywood, chief executive of IEAA.

Speaking with The PIE News, Honeywood targeted the program’s decision to only interview Universities Australia chair Margaret Gardner, claiming neither IEAA or EA were approached for comment during its production.

Instead, the program used interviews with academics, domestic and international students, as well as stakeholders including AAERI president Ravi Singh, and Andrew Durston, director of student vetting service Probitas Quad.

“In any industry, we can always find a number of disgruntled people who work in the industry or clients of an industry,” he said.

“The fact that they’ve refused to talk to the peak bodies involved in industry… [means] they’ve not drilled down into the actuality into how procedures work, they’ve not drilled down into the incredible range of student services that are now provided to international students.”

Among areas highlighted, the program included evidence Murdoch University in Western Australia and the University of Tasmania had been waiving English proficiency requirements under the Simplified Student Visa Framework.

Introduced in 2016, the SSVF allows international students to access streamlined visa processing by, in part, only needing to satisfy the entry requirements of the institution rather than the study visa. Access is based on the risk rating of the provider and the student’s country of origin.

Many providers used the Medium of Instruction, which would deem a student proficient in English if they had studied another program, typically high school, for a set amount of time prior to entering university.

MOI would not be sufficient for a study visa, however, the Department of Home Affairs can intervene and request evidence of an English exam for any application at its discretion.

According to the program, however, some universities used unorthodox methods, such as combining the scores of separate IELTS exams to meet their requirements, and provided evidence UTAS had waived English requirements altogether to convert outstanding offers.

“As a part of our last-mile efforts to encourage acceptances for July 2018, the university will be waiving the English condition in order to assist the students who are yet to meet their English conditions,” a UTAS staff email obtained by the program read.

“In any industry, we can always find a number of disgruntled people”

The main target of the program, Murdoch University, was also alleged to have ignored the concerns of its academic staff, who said some international students, particularly from India, had limited to no English comprehension and were not meeting the academic requirements of their courses.

EA chief executive Brett Blacker said the number of stories in the program represented a small proportion of the entire Australian international education industry, which now hosts almost 700,000 international students.

“This story attempts to undermine the integrity of all education providers,” he told The PIE.

“The ABC produced no evidence of any systemic failures in the regulatory approach to international education in Australia. I refute the implications that three to four cases point to a widespread failing with our visa and regulatory systems.”

The framing of the report has also come under scrutiny, with the National Tertiary Education Union saying it was ongoing funding cuts that had contributed to the behaviour in the report rather than international students.

“International students who are inappropriately enrolled and inadequately supported are the victims here, not the problem,” said NTEU national president Alison Barnes.

“The problem lies with the behaviour of some university managements.”

An open letter from NTEU members, meanwhile, labelled the “pre-election documentary” a “racist portrayal of international students.”

An excerpt of a letter from NTEU members.

An excerpt of a letter from NTEU members.

In early 2019, the NTEU itself raised the alarm over English proficiency.

The fallout from “Cash Cows” has been swift, with UTAS announcing a review of its international admissions processes and discontinuing the use of alternate English proficiency evidence, including MOIs. MU is yet to formally respond to the program.

The PIE contacted Elise Worthington, the investigative reporter behind “Cash Cows”, to verify if IEAA or EA had been approached, but did not receive a response by time of publication.

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5 Responses to Australia: international sector hits back at ‘Four Corners’ allegations

  1. Goodness me.

    For many of us, this story should be subtitled ‘Shocking but not surprising’.

    Those of us who have decades of teaching experience much of this in student support, will tell you that this is simply the tip of the iceberg. The corporatisation of the university, with top heavy management has resulted in a standard of education that is a skeleton of what it once was.

    At Murdoch University, key staff, awarded for support have been made redundant, replaced by a peer support system for the masses, that fails to address the needs of international students, students of ESL, mature age students and students from the cohorts that require experience and inspirational guidance. The current approach at Murdoch is to direct students to seek help online and then seek peer support.This is the new ‘tiered’ approach for support.

    Experienced staff, those best placed to identify student needs, to recognise future challenges and help students succeed are now placed at the bottom of the support network struggling to survive on short casual contracts. It is quite clear that the numerous restructures at Murdoch University, the last one around 2015 and the present reshuffle occurring as we speak, are largely responsible for the ‘unsavoury’ teaching and learning conditions as they were designed to simply cut staff – is it surprising that one of the areas that has been hardest hit was the area of student support?

    There has NEVER been a more demoralising time to be associated with this institution, for anyone who believes in fair education and lifelong learning.

    The only area that is not being cut back is that of the senior management group (and their earnings), who have simply deconstructed what was once one of the best teaching universities in Australia – with little idea of what happens at ground level.

    The staff who are paid the least, who have the least amount of security, who regularly go beyond their means to support students, have kept Murdoch alive for this long. BUT…..every semester, we are asked to do more with less.

    The struggle for more money, has forced all staff into either cutting back the quality of their teaching or pressured them into seeking external funding for research. For the past decade, the drive has been for more research clearly at the expense of teaching.

    What is especially shocking, is that the most inspiring learning sessions (such as hands on laboratory sessions in the sciences) are the first to be cut, as they are the most expensive to run. Subjects that were exceptional at preparing students for contributing to society, exist no longer.

    The evidence is everywhere.
    There is so much more to this story and although what has come to light is shocking, anyone who has worked at Murdoch University (who is NOT in the senior leadership group) is simply not surprised.

    • As outsider, I’m guessing that the Uni is strapped for cash so is probably looking to create efficiencies. I’d like to hear your solution? I’ve seen many an academic outraged at this and that in my time, but rarely do I see any effort to come up with a sensible solution. Don’t forget, a Uni like any other educational institution in the world, is still a business and needs to remain viable.

  2. Almost 80% of Australian universities have appointed their staff or contract firms for marketing courses and agent liaison in India. Deakin. The actual culprits are these marketing offices or offshore managers who have targets and their salaries and pay is only determined by large numbers. English waivers, accepting students with low scores and backlogs, turning a blind eye to fake financials or education, work documents. Students are not cash cows as the enrollment is only to gain visa into the country (cash rich economy). After they land in Australia they drag the first semester and then change the college into some easy course with private higher education institute with no classes which accepts tuition fee in installments. This allows them to work in cash rich economy and for stay in Australia.

  3. While I can understand the tone of righteous indignation in this article, after all the ABC report was pretty confronting, unfortunately the experience of academics was accurately represented. We are passionate about our work, we genuinely care for our students, and we feel an ethical responsibility to help them succeed. In the last few years there has been a very noticeable increase in students who are not linguistically equipped for study at an English speaking university. We see them struggle, we witness them breaching academic integrity out of desperation, we watch them fail despite our best efforts to support them.

    There IS a problem. Let the Gods protest their quality assurance, their systems, their checks and balances. The power of the ABC program is that they talked to the staff at the coal face, and sadly the above article is correct when it states “we can always find a number of disgruntled people”, you don’t have to look far to find many, many of us. And we are not only disgruntled, we are sad – we entered academia to create a learning experience for all.

    Funding cuts to higher education demand that money comes from somewhere, but relying on unqualified and unprepared students as the answer is unethical. They are more than welcome, I love the diversity of my classroom and the richness this brings, but have them enter via ELICOS and other English preparation programs.

  4. 17 years ago when we lived in australia and worked at university it was already the subject on professor, associated gatherings. At that point, it was more about changing students for customers.. and in some instance being asked by University to pass international students

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