Volume 9, Issue 11
Last week De Minimis published the article “MLS Students Welcome Library Changes”. It was a satirical piece which discussed the recent renovations to level 3 of the law library. The changes were made, it said, “in an effort to better accommodate the primary users of the Law Library - commerce students”.
This isn’t the first time that non-law student use of the law library has been discussed in De Minimis. In 2014, in the article “SNAILS Invade Law School”, SNAILS (Students Not Actually In Law School) were defined as “from diverse backgrounds”, in the “possession of a calculator or macroeconomics textbook” and carrying the “scent of teenager”. The racial connotations behind these statements were reinforced by the proposal that “we could send the SNAILS over to the traffic island outside the law building for processing to ensure only the worthiest are granted access.”
Non-law student use of the law library is in no way constrained to commerce students. The reason that “SNAILS” are so strongly associated with commerce students is, let’s be frank, because of the strong association of commerce students with students from an Asian background.
A number of MLS students of Asian descent have voiced their discomfort at last week’s article.
One MLS student, Allison Fong (who, readers should note, the author knows personally), commented, “I don’t know if it’s a correct assumption, but when I saw the word ‘commerce student’ I thought immediately that it was directed at Asian students. It’s just not right. If it’s not directed at Asian students, then what else could it be? We know how the stereotype goes. There are a lot of international Asian students who are taking a commerce degree.”
The association is, every now and then, made explicit. Last year the current LSS Equality Officer, JJ Kim, documented a conversation he overheard between two law students at spring social. One student was told, “I’m just saying! You’re alright man, you’re not a part of them, you’re like a white Asian… but some of these Asians you see around the building, I can’t bloody stand them!”
Australia has one of the highest proportion of international students in the world, education being one of Australia's top 4 exports after iron ore, natural gas and coal. By far the highest number of international students are from China.
Universities see international students as one of their primary sources of revenue: one of the University of Melbourne’s “targets” to increase revenue was recently stated as being to “broaden the base of international enrolments”(see here, p 13). Graycar, in his paper “Racism and the Tertiary Student Experience in Australia”, writes that when education is treated as a consumer activity, in which cash is exchanged for a qualification, rather than as a holistic experience, then this inevitably leads to systemic exploitation (see here, p 10). Resources aren’t devoted to ensuring international student well-being; rather the focus is on extracting as much cash from them as possible.
Exploitation is experienced by international students in a great number of ways. According to a recent survey of more than 200 international students by the union United Voice, for example, 60 per cent earned less than the national minimum wage ($16.37 an hour), and a quarter of those surveyed received $10 or less an hour (see here).
International students also face problems accessing safe, adequate and affordable housing; problems with personal safety and security; problems accessing physical and mental health services, including information and health services for women; and privacy problems (see here).
As JJ Kim recognised in his article, the systemic problems arising out of seeing international students as not much more than dollar signs do not have easy solutions. What we can do, however, “is control our reaction, attitude and behaviour.” We should be careful to exercise that control - the “negative feelings towards SNAILS subconsciously translates into negative feelings towards Asians.”
This is particularly important at a time when economic problems are leading to an increase in nationalist sentiments globally. Immigrants are being used as scapegoats for the problems caused by the financialisation of the economy, which has led to almost unfathomable levels of inequality.
The massive following Donald Trump has, for example, is due, first, to his protectionist economic policy targeted at increasing domestic employment and, second, to his hateful stance on immigrants – his idea for a “Great Wall of Trump” and his proposal for a blanket ban on Muslim immigrants (see here).
The MLS library is an interesting place for this same dynamic to be playing out. We should be wary. How would international students undertaking the commerce degree have felt reading the De Minimis article last week?
Of course, the law student area is the law student area. But should we feel entitled to the whole building? Should we indulge the feeling that “they” are using “our” stuff?
As Allison Fong stated, “Immediately when I saw the word commerce, I thought back to [JJ Kim’s] article, and my first instinct was that it was directed at this ‘Asian issue’ which is just a bit disappointing if people are thinking of it as an issue. I think the whole point of that article is that it shouldn’t matter if they’re law students. We should all be included.”
Duncan Wallace is a third-year JD student and Chief Editor of De Minimis.
The rest of this week's issue:
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