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Issue # 1420      22 July 2009


Overseas students face Australian nightmare

The spotlight that has recently been shone on the racist attacks on overseas students studying in Australia has revealed other appalling stories concerning their treatment.

Under the commercially-oriented tertiary education system created during the Howard era, overseas students must gain 900 hours of work experience. However, there is no requirement for employers to actually pay them, so many have been forced to work for little or nothing at all.

Some employers have refused to verify the number of hours worked unless the students work extra unpaid hours. Many students have been forced to pay employers or agencies for forged work verification documents, and some have not only had to pay for the documents but also work for no payment.

Nor is there any requirement for the work to have any relevance to their field of study. Students take any jobs they can find, while fighting fatigue and desperately trying to get through their courses. In some cases they have been forced to take highly dangerous or degrading work. One female student from India was even offered work as a prostitute.

But that’s not all. Universities now depend on university fees to fund their activities, and the amount derived from overseas student fees comes to $15.5 billion per annum. That amounts to between $200 million and $300 million in annual fees paid by overseas students, for each university. That’s more than 20 percent of the income of some universities, and many are now dependent on this extra revenue to fund less popular courses and post-graduate research and scholarships, which are inadequately funded by government.

In order to gain overseas student fees, universities are now paying commissions to agencies which assist overseas students to enrol in Australian colleges or universities. The agencies have a vested interest in sending as many students as possible, and in order to tempt them and their families into taking the huge financial risks involved, they paint a deceptively rosy picture of overseas student life in Australia, and even offer to arrange contract marriages to facilitate immigration. The Australian government does not interview prospective students before they arrive.

Many students seek permanent residency permits, but this depends on their meeting visa requirements, which give priority for students whose courses fall within the Critical Skills Shortage areas. Moreover, private colleges (often described as “visa mills”, and in some cases having totally inadequate facilities) offer higher commissions to agencies than public universities and colleges, so the agencies pressure students to take the private courses.

As a result, many overseas students reluctantly agree to enrol in courses of no interest to them, in the hope that they can graduate, gain a residency permit, and finally enrol in the course of their choice.

Some students try to quit these courses, even though they risk deportation. However, the private colleges impose deadlines for notices of cancellation, in order to avoid having to refund fees. Robert Palmer, an advocate for students studying in Australia, commented: “Once they get their hands on the student, they will do everything in their power to keep the student in their college”.

The exploitation involved, in what the mass media now glowingly describes as our “higher education export industry”, also involves the students’ families. Many families mortgage or sell the family home and possessions in order to pay the course fees, which are between $20,000 and $30,000 per annum for most courses. If the student fails to graduate, the family is ruined.

Most students studying away from home will experience homesickness sooner or later. However, because of the commercial orientation of Australia’s tertiary education system, the pressure placed on overseas students is so great that many are succumbing to deep depression. Last year 51 overseas students died, 34 from unrecorded causes, and the number is likely to rise unless conditions change. Melbourne’s Overseas Student Support Network has handled 1,000 complaints from overseas students since February.

The Rudd government is now more than half way through its term of office, but it has so far failed to deal with the problems facing overseas students in Australia. The government should immediately take action to remedy the shameful and sordid treatment of these young people. 

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