Issue 12, Semester 2, 2019
Since the airing of Four Corners’ segment “Cash Cows” in April, the issue of international students at Australian universities has been a hot topic in the media. Many of Australia’s most prestigious tertiary institutions have been accused of cashing in on the international student market, to the detriment of academic integrity, quality of education, and both international and domestic student bodies. The University of Melbourne has done little to assuage such fears, choosing instead to adopt an attitude of secrecy.
It must be stated at the outset, that the media hype around this issue has exposed some disgusting bigotry directed toward overseas students. This article in no way seeks to further this hardship, or cast any aspersions upon individuals or the countries from which they come. Rather, the goal is to contextualise the debate for all the relevant stakeholders, including international students themselves.
It’s clear why universities are admitting an ever-increasing number of international students, advertising aggressively in untapped Asian markets. Overseas expansion allows the tertiary education sector to maintain growth past the point the Australian population could support. By churning international students through expensive degrees, universities can fund their less profitable functions. And those degrees are expensive — international students pay proportionally far higher fees, particularly at the undergraduate level.
This year, the University of Melbourne drew over thirty percent of its student complement from overseas, of whom a large proportion came from China. There are over one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand Chinese students in Australian tertiary institutions, more than double the next highest contributor, India.
As noted, funnelling students through undergraduate degrees, which are relatively inexpensive to run (such as Arts), allows the University to fund its other activities, including the employment of an ever-expanding legion of administrative employees. However, doing so exposes the University to financial, social, and political liabilities.
The Law School isn’t immune from this dynamic, however the extent to which these trends hold true for us specifically is not clear. The University keeps student data close to its chest, and refused a request for information pertaining to international students in the Law School. Even basic statistics such as the proportion of international students undertaking the JD is apparently on a need-to-know basis. This attitude hardly engenders confidence.
The aforementioned Four Corners report accused several tertiary institutions of compromising their core missions in pursuit of this lucrative sector. Universities have an interest in relaxing admission requirements, particularly in English proficiency, in order to secure paying students. Once international students have been admitted, Four Corners claims that some academic staff are pressured to mark favourably, even ignoring instances of plagiarism, in order to retain students. Similar conflicts of interest exist for all Australian universities, and there is no reason to presume that the University of Melbourne is immune.
In August, the Centre for Independent Studies released a report highlighting the proliferation of international students, particularly Chinese International Students (CIS), across Australia’s tertiary sector. The paper revealed that the University of Melbourne derived somewhere between an eighth and a quarter of its total revenue from Chinese students. These figures are extremely vague, because the University refuses to release this financial data.
Not only does this financial dependence potentially incentivise the University to compromise its standards of academic integrity, it may also give rise to a divergence between the interests of the University and the Australian public. Due to its reliance on the Chinese market, an economic slowdown offshore, or a sudden change in Chinese policy, could cripple the University in the short term, leading to an abiding interest not to antagonise the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Compounding this conflict, the University also hosts a Confucius Institute, a ‘soft-power’ apparatus of the Chinese state. Whilst lucrative, Confucius Institutes have been accused around the world of subverting academic integrity, and serving as a platform for the dissemination of propaganda. These institutes have received increased scrutiny recently, with reports that the University of Queensland, Griffith University, La Trobe University and Charles Darwin University all contracted to give Beijing carte blanche to govern what was taught at their respective branches.
It is true that Commonwealth funding for tertiary education is not as forthcoming as it once was, with a federal funding freeze hitting the industry in 2017. Hence, it is understandable why universities have looked elsewhere to cover the shortfall. However, there are any number of political issues over which the CCP may be willing to tighten the screws on the Australian education industry.
These conflicts of interest have deleterious effects on the student body, brought home in the first semester of 2019, when a dearth of seats across multiple first-year seminars led to friction. International students presented a convenient scapegoat for the problem, while the Law School’s official statement did little to stem the suggestion from some that the University’s CIS admissions policies were partly to blame.
Indeed, the University’s culture of silence on this issue has energised the MLS rumour mill. Most readers will have heard the suggestion, recurrent every time a new collaborative task is assigned, that domestic students are systematically paired with international students. Staff are at pains to stress that groupings and pairings are completely random, and there’s no reason to disbelieve them. Yet, the pernicious rumours persist, thanks in part to perceived antagonism between MLS and the student body.
Such a situation makes life unnecessarily difficult for international students, who already have to contend with the struggle of studying thousands of kilometres from home. This struggle is made particularly acute if one’s English language skills are not where they realistically ought to be in order to succeed in a challenging degree. The University is not necessarily troubled by this dynamic, as their balance sheet is not affected if international students are facing language difficulties.
Several international students spoken to who wish to remain anonymous, expressed the opinion that MLS does not do enough to support non-native English speakers. “Of course, the language is an issue,” said one, “so the University could do things to make it easier for us.” Another resented having to repeatedly translate course content for his compatriots, feeling he was acting as a de facto tutor.
This situation may feed into another problem plaguing MLS and tertiary education more broadly: ghostwriting services. To be clear, this is not to suggest that only international students make use of such services. However, the increased pressure international students find themselves under may make such services more attractive than they would otherwise prove. A growing ‘academic services’ industry has sprung up around the University of Melbourne, echoing recent studies that have concluded the same.
I visited the King Street offices of one such ‘academic services’ company, which was advertising with Chinese-language posters around the Law School. They offer to ‘check’ essays, in violation of the University’s academic integrity guidelines. It is not difficult either, to find providers willing to assist in even more egregious ways. For example, Facebook ads have been targeting law students, advertising essay writing services.
The negative effects of this situation are plain to see. For those students who feel they are unable to keep up at Unimelb, the reality of the situation is stark. Extreme stress and diagnosable mental health issues are predictable results of academic failure, particularly when one has incurred the huge expense of studying overseas.
A silent crisis is unfolding regarding the mental health of international students, unacknowledged by institutions keen to preserve their international image. The Age has reported that dozens of international students have committed suicide across Victoria in recent years. For many, this was a direct result of the stresses they faced in their studies.
Shattering mental health problems are potentially the darkest result of the University of Melbourne’s attempts to admit ever-greater numbers of overseas students. The University is not unaware of this unfolding issue, and a spokesman told The Age in January that the University provides free counselling services, and trains staff to spot students in distress. They are probably aware too of the number of international students who have taken their own lives on the University’s watch, but are choosing not to air that information.
A resolution in sight?
No doubt, the University is already seeking to diversify its international student complement, and expand into new markets. Such actions may safeguard the University against allegations of undue influence from the Chinese state. However, they fail to directly address criticisms regarding the exploitation of students.
For all of us at MLS, there is no doubt that the presence of international students enriches our degrees, with their unique perspectives, cultural insights, and the international friendships formed. However, it is for this very reason that more must be done to assuage legitimate concerns. International students do not deserve to arrive to an atmosphere of suspicion and wariness.
To nip any suggestions of impropriety in the bud, a good first step would be for MLS to disclose exactly how many international student classmates we have. It is unfair that international students, who have paid well for the right to study at MLS, should be left in the firing line as a result of the University’s aversion to openness.
Whilst the underlying financial pressure to find new sources of revenue will be difficult to correct without government action, a nearsighted overreliance on international students to make up the shortfall is neither in the long-term interests of the University, nor the public. Unimelb, and by extension MLS, should not find itself in a position where people have cause to question its academic bone fides, or its independence. The University will likely continue to face criticism until the conflict of interest (real or perceived) inherent to its business model is corrected.
Information in this article was sourced from the University of Melbourne, the ABC, and the Centre for Independent Studies. For a full list of sources, please contact De Minimis.
 The Centre for Independent Studies, ‘The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities’, 1/8/19.
 The Age, ‘Confucius Institutes’, 25/7/19.
 ABC, ‘Paying for assignments’, 3/10/19.
 The Age, ‘Zhikai Liu’, 14/1/19.
 The Age, ‘Zhikai Liu’, 14/1/19.
First-year JD students Nathan Chin and Matthew Li assisted in the preparation of this article.
Max is a First Year JD Student.
A Note from the Dean of MLS
21 October 2019
The purpose of this note is to provide a brief comment in relation to some of the far-ranging matters raised in this article. First, I would like to state very clearly that international students are an integral part of the MLS community. At the 2019 Orientation Day welcoming international students I recall noting the number of countries from which international JD students hail (15). International students comprise approximately 23% of the 2019 JD incoming cohort, with approximately 57% of international students from China. We have approximately 25% international students in our masters programs from over 45 countries. International students make a highly valued contribution to the life of the Law School, and there is no secretiveness or sensitivity about the number of international students we admit to our programs.
The Law School continues to work on ways through which to better support international students, as with all students. For example, this year a review was conducted in the Legal Academic Skills Centre to ensure we deliver best-practice academic skills support for students for whom English is an additional language. We have also established the Experiential Learning for Law International Students program to assist international students to gain practical legal experience.
We are concerned by the tone and content of much of the public debate that is currently taking place in the media regarding the higher education sector and international students, and we continue to work on ways to ensure that international JD and MLM students know that they are valued and vital members of the Law School community, enriching the teaching, learning and more broadly life of the Law School in a myriad of ways. The Law School finds references to international students as “cash cows” and “golden gooses” highly offensive.
Professor Pip Nicholson
Dean, Melbourne Law School