International students suffer at Australian Universities

Recently I quit my academic job at RMIT University. One of my reasons was that I could no longer stomach how Australian universities treat international students.

As a Program Manager in a course that attracts more international than local students, I have been the interface between students and the institution for a number of years. I’m the one who’s meant to come up with strategies when a student is struggling with their study.

I have seen the same problems faced by international students for many years, and my attempts to change the situation have been stymied at every turn. Whenever I see an international student who is struggling, I feel overwhelmed by guilt and shame. I can’t do it any more.

What’s the problem?

Our international students need to meet an English threshold to be admitted. There is a standardised test, called an IELTS test (there are others, but this is the most common in Australia). Our students must attain an average of 6.5 on the test results, with no band below 6.

Students who only just meet this criteria struggle in the classroom. They take a long time to read, and so get left behind in debates. They spend at least twice as much time reading than local students (and usually longer) and even then, their comprehension is poor when it comes to anything technical or sophisticated.

They are generally silent in class, because they can’t follow the conversation, or if they can, are ashamed to speak because they will be slow, or difficult to understand. It is extremely difficult for them to collaborate (and in my program, collaboration is key), and from a teacher’s perspective it is difficult to force inter-cultural collaborations when some of the students can’t communicate. This leads to the formation of class-based ghettos. The best English speaker will then emerge as the ‘spokesperson’ for a group of internationals, further silencing the ones who struggle.

The prevailing theory is that international students with poor English will quickly improve. Indeed, this is often the case – commencing students who are struggling in week 1 are usually much better by week 8 (although still facing significant academic hurdles). However a percentage of internationals do not improve. Indeed, as they become more ghettoised and isolated, their English can actually deteriorate.

Research is a compulsory aspect of a Masters by coursework degree under the Commonwealth government’s AQF framework. A certain type of international student finds this requirement extremely difficult. On top of the poor English, some students come from a very different educational system and struggle to understand the concept of research. The fail rate in our research methods course among this demographic is very high. We are constantly trying different things, but we are constrained by what policy and procedure allows.

It is difficult to explain what research is, develop an appropriate methodology, and develop a research idea, if a student cannot read sophisticated English, and relies on Google translate to fix their writing.

I have been shopping my concerns through the institution for at least two years. They are met by superficial commiseration, suggestions that I consult with someone else, and promises that it is on some agenda somewhere. Sometimes – very rarely – I have encountered other staff who are desperately concerned about it, but they simply share my frustration. I have never been invited to the high-level meetings that are allegedly occurring.

I am so annoyed and offended by the ‘run-around’ managerial technique which sends me off on a goose-chase to some other area. Another managerial technique that I have encountered way too often is to turn the ‘solution’ into a shit-load of work for yours truly. Since I have no power, it’s not even a solution. It’s just a way to shut me up.

So, what are the solutions?

The most obvious one is to raise the IELTS entry score. I am reliably informed that this will never happen because universities are too dependent on international students for income, and they know that a lot of our students struggle to meet 6.5. Indeed, some other universities have an IELTS score for a Master degree of only 6 – so RMIT already has a relatively high entry score.

The most popular solution is for students to continue learning English while doing their study. Indeed, I myself privately embraced this solution. At no cost the the university, I trained up as a TEFL English teacher and I used my consultation time to run English sessions for commencing students. The take-up of these sessions has been low. Our international students who are struggling have no extra time for more lessons. Although there probably would be a pay-off down the track, they are already exhausted and flat out with their compulsory coursework.

RMIT also has a centralised Study and Learning Centre which offers some help with English. Our students appear to under-utilise it.

Ultimately, we can never go down the path of obliging or expecting international students with poor English to do more English study. It is inequitable to expect some types of students to do more work than others. The bottom line is: if a student is not qualified to study a course, they should not be admitted. If they are admitted, the institution is failing in its duty of care. Indeed, it could almost be called a type of fraud. Institutions who promise that a student can get a qualification which they don’t have the ability to get are on very thin ice, not only morally but possibly legally too. Of course, universities earn as much, or even more, from students who fail, as from students who pass.

Our international students come to us in good faith. The ‘barely 6.5’ students have no idea that their English standard is actually insufficient. It is only after they start their course, having invested huge sums of money, moved countries, and made huge promises to their families, that they realise that they can’t manage. It is too late for them to back out by that stage.

Other solutions start with the premise of keeping the 6.5 score, but changing the course. These are more complex solutions which probably involve revision of Commonwealth policy. For example, we could have different qualifications for different English capabilities. We could have three-year Masters degrees, in which students with good English get credit for the first year. This would allow us to incorporate a discipline-specific English language program into the first year. Then we could potentially stream the 2nd and 3rd years so that students with poor English continue to build their English skill. The problem from the current policy perspective is that students from the different streams may not emerge with the same skill-set. Perhaps international students would not accept (or be prepared to pay for) an extra year.

At the very least, integrating discipline-specific English language teaching into the actual curriculum, rather than as an add-on, is necessary. It will require streaming, because we don’t want to alienate students who don’t need it. Again, this probably means a policy change.

Why is it so hard to make changes for international students?

At some level the answer that is obvious: it will cost money and involve policy evolution, and in this fraught political environment for tertiary education, I sense that nobody really wants to rock the boat. But let’s look a little bit more closely at the bottom line.

The following Federal government data illustrates the export income from international students in 2015:

international student export income

inton student export income

97.6% of Victoria’s internationals are in Melbourne, and among the Chinese students (who are the largest national source of international students), 73% study Elicos (English course) on arrival. That means they have little or no English before they arrive. Chinese students are hugely important to Australia’s trade balance, but they usually have the worst English.
International students don’t just subsidise the budgets of our universities, they are a huge source of foreign income for local, state and federal governments. There is a collusion amongst all these institutions to prop up an unethical system. Neither government nor university administration wishes to take this issue seriously. So long as the international students themselves (and/or their governments on their behalf) do not take their money elsewhere, there is no political desire to tackle the problem.

The hidden cost to international students

I have heard so much casual ‘proto-racism’ about international students. International students tend to be silent, their rights are limited, they are here under suffrance, wrapped up in tight visa restrictions. It is easy to treat them as sub-human.

But the silence of our international students doesn’t mean they are happy. Happy people are noisy in class, they ask questions, they are confident. If you know a silent international student, you should be worried. I’m not a psychologist, but I see enough international students to know that the incidence of anxiety and even depression is much higher than for local students. While it is impossible to get accurate statistics about suicide among international students, I have anecdotally be told some hair-raising figures about how common it is.

Very rarely does the incidence of suicide among international students reach public attention. After an outcry over an Indian student who committed suicide in 2009, the under-reporting of international student suicide by universities and coroners office was raised, however 7 years later I still can’t work out how to find this information (if you know how to get it, please tell me).

Concern over suicide rates have been noted by the Australian Federation of International Students . Various reasons have been explored, including stress over permanent residency, debt depression, loneliness homesickness, inability to find employment and good accommodation. Potential students are often misled by agents and recruiters, whether it is about the academic aspects of their proposed study, or the life that awaits them in Australia.

Forbes-Mewett and Sawyer (2011):

…identify three main sets of factors that appear to heighten the stresses and strains experienced by international students: the experience of new and often unfamiliar academic practices, the broad range of knowledge and practical skills needed to manage day-to-day living in Australia, and the tendency to delay professional help-seeking for mental health problems.
A 2011 National Summit on the Mental Health of Tertiary Students indicates how academic difficulties can lead to a snowballing of difficulties in other parts of a student’s life (Jonathan Norton, 2010, quoted by Forbes-Mewett and Sawyer 2011, p2).

According to one Chinese study, 7 in 10000 international students commit suicide globally – so this is not a problem that is necessarily worse at RMIT or even in Australia. I don’t believe RMIT treats international students worse than other universities, but RMIT does have huge numbers of internationals, so the problems are possibly more apparent.

An isolated issue?

Staff at contemporary Australian universities face many issues, including the corporatisation of higher education; a government-mandated compliance culture which, while well-intended, stultifies innovation; the bureaucratisation that results from both of these; a research culture which values metrics over real engagement and fosters elites and silos; the financial pressure on universities which means that economies of scale become the main budgeting principle, and the fact that to get ahead in the university environment you must surrender your work-life balance.

Amongst so much penny-pinching drudgery that characterises contemporary academic life, the offhand way we treat our international students elevates universities into the echelons of bureaucratically administered cruelty. We need to confront and resolve it before any more students suffer.


Forbes-Mewett, H. and Sawyer, A-M. (2011) Mental Health Issues amongst
International Students in Australia: Perspectives from Professionals at the Coal-face.
The Australian Sociological Association Conference Local Lives/Global Networks,
University of Newcastle New South Wales. November 29 – December 2.

Other datasets

2016 international student data

Breakdown of nationalities in each state

[This is the republished version of my December 2016 article, which became unavailable when my website was hacked.]