STANCE #26 – MARCH EDITION
By Joe Bourke
International students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are important to Australia’s economy. Education is Australia’s third-largest sector for GDP growth, and PRC students alone contributed $10 billion to the Australian economy in 2017. However, intense public debate in Australia about the influence of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Australian politics and a lack of effort from universities has led to some PRC students returning home unsatisfied. This cannot continue.
As recognised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s education sector represents a substantial source of soft power. The Australian experience of students from the PRC impacts on how educated PRC citizens view Australia.
Furthermore, Australian universities have begun to depend on the tuition fees of PRC students.
In order to continue to receive the benefits PRC students bring, Australian policymakers and university officials must engage in three key areas.
First, student experience must be a top priority. Universities can lead the way by fostering stronger independent student organisations. While the important work of national organisations like the Australia-China Youth Association should be applauded, more initiatives organised by universities specifically for engagement between PRC and Australian students is essential given the vast numbers of PRC students on campus and the small number of existing organisations. Media reports that PRC students ‘don’t think local students want to talk to them’ send a strong message to potential international students that Australia might not be the best choice for overseas study. Increasing the quantity and quality of integration programs can help ameliorate this.
Hand in hand with ensuring the best possible student experience is ensuring international students are equipped with the skills needed to engage with course content. As such, the federal government needs to raise the bar for language skills of international students.
Most Australian universities accept students who achieve a score of 6 or 7 in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). However, the IELTS states this score is only ‘probably acceptable’ for linguistically demanding courses. Some students don’t even reach this level, as the federal government allows IELTS scores as low as 4.5 to obtain a student visa, providing the student enrols in a 10–20 week paid intensive English course on arrival. Adding an extra cost for international students while outsourcing the improvement of language deficiency is hardly an adequate long-term policy response. This situation could be improved by offering a government or university supported language program which allows local students to tutor new PRC students. This would assist new PRC students in learning valuable English skills while fostering relationships between new PRC students and local students from early in their stay.
Minister for Education Dan Tehan told the ABC in October 2018 that it is up to universities to control English standards. He denied there were any issues with international students’ experiences by pointing to the current number of international enrolments. This is short-sighted. Enrolments may stay high in the short term, but the lowering of English standards in Australian universities could contribute to a loss of reputation for Australian degrees. This could harm Australian universities’ standing in the world, and lose them enrolments in the long term.
Noting the importance of international students to Australia’s tertiary education system, the federal government should take the lead on English standard requirements. This would require policy collaboration between administrators at universities and Department of Education bureaucrats. A roundtable between Group of Eight universities and the Department of Education on this subject would be a good start.
Finally, the federal government needs to devote more time and resources into the Australia-China bilateral relationship. This can be assisted by the PRC students already in Australia. A good start may be to involve Australian businesses, which could offer development days, internships or a combination of both to PRC students. This would add an extra dimension to the students’ time in Australia and help businesses boost their knowledge of the PRC. Initiatives like this, or like the collaborative Australia-PRC student language scheme noted earlier, would greatly assist in making PRC students feel valued in Australia.
Growing Australia’s share of international students would be advantageous both for its relationship with the PRC and the economic advantages international students bring. But Australia must not grow complacent. While PRC students make up a considerable percentage of all international students in Australia, the situation could change if large numbers of students have negative experiences, or if the CPC leadership took steps to dissuade PRC students from visiting Australia. Studying in a foreign country is costly, but it’s a worthwhile experience if done right. And it’s in both Australia’s and future students’ interests to make sure it is.
Joe Bourke is a recent graduate of the University of Technology Sydney with a Bachelor of Communications (Journalism) and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies. He is currently Acting Communications Director at Young Australians in International Affairs, and works as an Analyst at the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the views of China Matters