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Thomson Ch’ng, President, Council of International Students Australia

Representing the voice of international students in Australia, Thomson Ch’ng at CISA talks to The PIE about his tenure and issues that CISA advocates on, such as course hopping, work rights and integration.

The PIE: How did you come to be national president of CISA?

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"When the government calls for review into the current policies in international education, they invite us as a student voice"

TC: I came into Australia in 2009 and I decided to get involved in the role as president of the student associations at my university because I wanted to improve my English. In 2010, there was a forum where all international student leaders were invited to attend, which was where the Council of International Students Australia was formed.

Mainly we advocate for the needs and the interests of international students in Australia. There are common issues that challenge international students as a whole, like employability, accommodation and housing, the cost of living, safety, and also visa regulations.

Any policy that will impact international students, we will take a position and a stand on that. At the same time we have a little bit of function in community engagement because we think that this is another important area that we have to tackle.

“‘I’m not Australian, but I have an Australian story’ showcased the real story of international students in Australia”

The PIE: Can you give an example of the advocacy CISA does?

TC: We do a lot of work in policy submissions. So when the government calls for review into the current policies in international education, they invite us to provide a student perspective, to make sure that it is being taken into consideration. We run campaigns as well, depending on whether we get funding from the government and different campaigns.

One of them is ‘I’m not Australian, but I have an Australian story’, that showcased the real story of international students in Australia – both the positive and the negative. This is how we raise awareness to the wider community as well. It was run in 2013 and was quite successful, and now we are thinking of re-launching it.

The PIE: Since you coined the term “ghost student”, do you think there has been an adequate response from the government to students turning up in Australia who maybe don’t have the right intention to study?

TC: I think to a certain extent, the regulatory framework can actually help in terms of tackling the issue. We’ve seen the reform of the Education Services for Overseas Student Act [the ESOS Act] that has been going on for the last few months and we’ve been involved in the consultations with the peak international education bodies and also with the Department of Education, providing input on this particular matter.

“If we do not act to prevent this from worsening, it will turn out to be a big problem”

It ties up with some other issues that the industry has been talking about as well, such as the issue of ‘course-hopping’, where students have been hopping from one provider to another provider and the effect that SVP (streamlined visa processing) is currently generating.

It requires a more coordinated approach, to tackle the issue. There is one part that the government can play, in terms of regulatory framework. But the education providers need to also work together with the education agents to identify any trend of unscrupulous behaviour.

We’re seeing sometimes how there is some unscrupulous behaviour by agents actually, who sort of promote ‘course-hopping’ and promote Australia as a destination and student visas as a bridge to actually come into Australia. So these are complicated issues, which are concerning.

The PIE: How much of a problem do you think it is?

TC: The percentage is very small at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent with that. If we do not act to prevent this from worsening, it will turn out to be a big problem. Especially with the reform that the government has been talking about, a market-driven system.

We have been talking [at the UA conference] about how it would interact with the impact on the quality of the education services. The last thing we want to see is the quality of education in Australia be compromised as a result.

The PIE: Do you think the government is aware and acting on this?

TC: I think so. We have certainly brought this issue up to the department of education, to the consultation meetings, to the immigration department as well. We also sit on the education visa consultative committee alongside other education bodies, so those are the platforms we raise issues to, to make sure it is being discussed.

“I’m happy to say on behalf of international students, that many of the students love Australia and they treat it as a second home”

The PIE: What other issues are affecting bona fide international students in Australia?

TC: There’s a sense of frustration when students have the intention of studying and getting a qualification here, but at the same time you are seeing some of the classmates who are engaging with unscrupulous behaviour but sometimes they get away with it.

So suddenly there is an issue which that on not just the welfare and well-being of international students, but also the reputation of Australia as a study destination as a whole. So it is in everyone’s interests first to protect Australia’s reputation as a study destination.

The PIE: Interesting, so international students do feel affronted by this unscrupulous behaviour then?

TC: Absolutely. International students are here because they know that international education does advantage their future through their career opportunities, but if the reputation of the education providers in Australia are affected as a result of such incidents, certainly it does impact on the employability when it comes to hunting for jobs in the future.

The PIE: Do issues around wage standards for international students working part-time still exist and are you advocating on this?

TC: Yes. It is all about better informing students with the facts that there is legislation in Australia that protects international students. Whether they are international or non-international, students are entitled to minimum wages and entitled to take action against employers if they feel they have been cheated or even harassed.

There was one incident in Brisbane Airport about two years when a group of five international students raised an petition and stood up to a manager. We want students to stand up if they feel they are being cheated.

The PIE: Do you think in general that international students are well understood and well supported by the Australian public? 

TC: Generally, discussions about international students are mainly focused on how we are a main source of revenue for the economy. But we have seen how international students have impacted society here through their intercultural skills and knowledge. Many Australian cities are really international cities.

“International education has been transforming for me”

I think we still have a long way to go in terms of bridging the gap between international students and the wider public. But, I’m happy to say on behalf of international students, that many of the students love Australia and they treat it as a second home.

We are committed to working with the sector to make sure that universities and eventually the workforce can be a true champion of international students and graduates. Integration is key in ensuring that international students enjoy their time in Australia and some projects such as Joining the Dots are an example of good practice in this area.

The PIE: Your tenure finishes in July. What do you want you legacy to be? 

TC: We are celebrating our fifth anniversary this year. Our vision is that this council continues to grow and become a platform where stakeholders would like to engage and to consult with on any matter that concerns international students.

International education has been transforming for me. The amazing thing about studying in Australia and being a part of CISA is you get the chance to work with people from different backgrounds. I have to say that managing a team of student leaders who are from different countries and backgrounds serves as a challenging task but it is something I can’t learn from my textbook. I certainly learned a lot from my role as well. The experience is amazing.

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