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Australia

Overseas students have delivered a cash bonanza to universities, but at what cost?

His cry for help came anonymously on a university chat site, minutes before midnight. The Chinese student was just months into a notoriously difficult law degree, and he was struggling. His English was "so poor", he felt pressure from parents who had dug deep to pay for his degree, and he was too introverted to seek help. "The whole story [has] turned into a vicious cycle, which made me everyday sad, depressed, overwhelmed," he wrote.

He is not the only one having second thoughts about whether an Australian university education was a good idea.

Critics say Australian universities have made a strategic mistake in their reliance on international students.

Critics say Australian universities have made a strategic mistake in their reliance on international students.Credit:Shutterstock

Since the numbers of overseas students studying in Australia began sky-rocketing in 2013, bringing billions of dollars with them, there have been concerns the cash bonanza might come at a cost. Universities have been accused of compromising standards, of cosying up to foreign governments to protect lucrative markets, and of unintentionally creating national security problems through their research collaborations. But those questions have intensified in recent weeks as tensions escalate in Hong Kong, as China and the United States square up over trade, and as anti-democracy protesters take to the streets of Sydney.

Some politicians and analysts worry Australian universities have made a strategic mistake in their reliance on international students; that in their efforts to raise funds and get involved in top international research, they have over-reached and left themselves vulnerable. "The universities have sold their souls," says Clive Hamilton, author of Silent Invasion: China's Influence In Australia. "They've given Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party, a very big lever."

To compete with the rest of the world, Australian universities must be international. That means educating overseas students, and working with offshore institutions. In higher education, as in so many other areas, China is leading the knowledge arms race as it pumps money into research, and Australia is taking advantage of that though joint projects ranging from cancer research to computer science. This year, China is expected to overtake the United States to become Australia's leading international collaborator.

Australia has also embraced its role as educator of the region's youth. Since 2002, the number of overseas students enrolled in its higher education institutions has tripled, and last year there were more than 500,000 of them, equating to 26 inbound students for every Australian who studied abroad. International students come from everywhere, but at the top universities, such as Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland, which are more expensive, more highly ranked, and more prestigious, most are from China.

Universities say international enrolments make up for a lack of funding from government. They point out that other countries are funnelling public money into science - China and the US spend $500 billion annually on research and development, compared with Australia's $25 billion. But others say international students provide far more income for universities than public coffers ever could. "The government will never be able to meet the insatiable demands for more research funding," says Andrew Norton, director of the Grattan Institute's higher education program.

But reliance on international students forces universities into an exhausting cycle. To appeal to the overseas student market, a university needs to be high in the global rankings; to climb that ladder, they need to produce internationally-cited research and collaborate with prestigious institutions: to do that, they need to attract top researchers with salaries, teams and facilities; to cover those, they need fees from international students. "They do want to do research for its own sake, but they are also worried about the rankings - there's been some obsessive behaviour around [that]," says Norton.

The NSW Auditor-General has twice sounded a warning to top universities that they are too reliant on a single country, China, for their income, and need to diversify. There are signs that the Chinese market has peaked, and is levelling off. There are also fears it will decline over the next decade, as China builds its own universities and economic conditions change.

But the Chinese government is unpredictable, and this week China scholar Salvatore Babones warned that decline might happen sooner and more suddenly than expected if China responded to a trade war with the US by tightening currency controls, or suspending the convertibility of the yuan for educational purposes. The China-dependent universities were "taking massive financial risks in pursuit of this pot of gold", he wrote in a report for the Centre for Independent Studies. The best potential alternative, India, was "too poor to serve as a realistic alternative".

Norton agrees universities are financially exposed, but believes their risk is calculated. "They know [the international student boom] won't last forever, so they might as well take the opportunity for extraordinary profit while it lasts." Some also argue that this financial exposure forces universities to walk a delicate tightrope between being robust arenas for ideas and trying to avoid upsetting their biggest market. "Why would you expose yourself to that kind of risk?" asks Hamilton.

Vice-chancellors reject the suggestion they are vulnerable, financially or otherwise, and point out that all Australian companies doing business with China are in the same boat. "It is true that we have become as a sector dependent on international student fees," says University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence. "And it's true that's allowed successive Australian governments to withdraw funding from universities, particularly to withdraw research funding from universities. But we are also responsible. We've had financial shock recovery plans long before the current Chinese-US trade wars. It's a risk that we're managing, like any responsible business."

"It's a risk that we're managing, like any responsible business": The University of Sydney's Michael Spence.

"It's a risk that we're managing, like any responsible business": The University of Sydney's Michael Spence.Credit:James Brickwood

Universities are using the international income to invest in valuable research and lasting infrastructure rather than factoring it into recurrent expenditure, says University of Queensland vice-chancellor Peter Hoj. "If the flow of international students turned off very rapidly, would the universities close? No, I don't think so. Would Australia lose research capacity? Yes. Would our grandchildren have to go to dilapidated universities? Yes they would. These are the tough choices Australia has to make."

Financial vulnerability is one thing. But defence authorities are now worrying about something more difficult to define: that the intensity of research collaboration with China is creating holes in Australia's national security. They worry universities are unintentionally allowing sensitive technology and data to pass into the hands of a potentially hostile government. These fears are shared by some in the US, where members of Congress have drafted a bill calling on allies such as Australia to join them in banning student and visiting scholar visas to researchers affiliated with the Chinese military.

Some universities have already run into problems. The University of Technology, Sydney, is reviewing a $10 million partnership with a Chinese state-owned military tech company that developed an app used by Chinese security forces to track Muslim Uighurs in China. A Perth-based academic specialising in blast and impact engineering has come under fire for working with researchers from the People’s Liberation Army, in one case co-authoring a paper on explosions. China has been blamed for a massive data breach at the Australian National University in Canberra, although a spokesman for the university said an investigation was still underway.

Alex Joske, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says Chinese defence scholars have lied about their background when coming to Australia to work on projects involving sensitive technology. He says universities are doing the "bare minimum" and failing to adequately consider security and human rights implications when they collaborate with Chinese researchers. Some commentators also point to increasing ideological and political control over China's universities by its ruling party.

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Universities and government officials held talks on the issue this week. Vice-chancellors say they already work well with defence officials to identify sensitive information, and argue that too much red tape would stymie Australia's involvement in valuable projects. Most research with China is worthy and innocuous; it's about curing cancer, or ensuring food security by safeguarding crops from disease. "It is important that the management of technology risks is balanced against the mutually beneficial flow of people and ideas," says Dawn Freshwater, chair of the Group of Eight universities and vice-chancellor at the University of Western Australia.

Few of those interviewed thought students holding anti-democracy rallies posed a security risk to universities or the nation. The institutions are, after all, bastions of free speech, as recent debate over a campus free-speech code has insisted. And that includes the right of students to support Beijing's heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong. "As long as you protest lawfully, everyone has a right to express a view," says Hoj, whose university was the scene of violent clashes between pro- and anti-Hong Kong protesters.

Despite press reports of the family of a Chinese student who participated in protests at the University of Queensland being warned days later of the political consequences of dissent, Hoj had no evidence of Chinese spying. "So long as you conduct yourself according to the laws, it would be unacceptable if anyone were retaliated against directly or indirectly," he says.

Spence also says he has no evidence of Chinese government intervention in students' activities. "If it did happen, it would obviously be a matter of concern," he says. Otherwise, his approach to the issue is that "nobody can stop anybody else talking, as long as what they are saying is lawful and we're not going to have a problem with civil order".

While vice-chancellors and analysts debate national security and finances, another issue is causing problems on campus. Many international students are having trouble communicating with their peers and teachers, leaving them struggling in their courses. While there are International English Language Testing System (IELTS) benchmarks for each course, students, academics and commentators worry they are not high enough. "I think the only question here is 'how big is this problem?'" says Norton. "There's too much evidence from academics and even from student surveys where they self-report poor English for there not to be a problem, but quantifying it is difficult because there are not accurate records."

Babones raised the issue this week in an opinion piece for the Herald. "I know [international students] are not cheating on their papers because the English is sometimes so bad that it is almost impossible to read," he says. "If they use contract cheating services, they should demand their money back. Sometimes I have Chinese students who are not even able to understand the instructions I give for writing assignments."

Bill* is a mature-aged student at the University of Melbourne, who is doing a Masters 20-odd years after finishing his undergraduate degree. "I'm finding it a bit shocking to be frank," he says. "In a classroom it's very dysfunctional. There's someone who sits next to me, and asks me, 'what does implementation mean? What does deferral mean?'" When Bill did group work with international students, he says: "I basically had to rewrite the entire assignment. It's very stressful for everyone."

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Jan*, a 20-year-old humanities students from northern China who is studying at the University of Sydney, says international students share his frustration. Her friends have struggled with language while also grappling with an unfamiliar academic system. Many had never written an essay before arriving in Australia, as their exams in China involved multiple choice or short answers. "Students slowly catch up, but the first year is extremely hard for them," she says.

"They don't have time to find friends, they can't catch up with their courses, they find it harder to do their assignments - it causes all sorts of problems. I've noticed a lot of first-year students will become really depressed over time, they are really stressing out, they feel like they don't have any social life. It becomes so hard for them."

Jan also says there are not enough support services for struggling international students on campus. Alex Barthel, a consultant who has worked with university students on English proficiency for more than 25 years, agrees. He wonders how some foreign students can possibly manage complex degrees with patchy English, but he also points out that standards are declining among domestic students, too. "[Employers] say these [local] students can't read or write, they can't talk to co-workers. You have some courses where the vast majority of students' English is so low, something has to happen."

But others disagree. David Brophy is a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, and has never encountered any issues with English standards among international students. Neither has Professor James Laurenceson, from the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS. "I've spent the last 20 years teaching Chinese students, and I've found them to be no different in terms of their abilities than a local student," he says. Laurenceson also points out that student satisfaction surveys show those travelling to Australia to study are happy with their experience.

Spence admits to challenges in teaching students with differing language ability, but says the idea of a homogenous student group is a relic of the past. "Their English is not going to be as good as the English of a boy from Sydney Grammar," he says. "But guess what? Most of the population's English isn't as good as a boy from Sydney Grammar. You've got to work with them. And you've got to work with your colleagues in the Shanghai office, or Lima office. That's a skill we're trying to teach people."

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He also dismisses the persistent rumours that academics have been instructed to "soft mark" international students. "The one thing that the average academic does not care about is how their university is financed," he says. "If I ever find out that anybody was telling people to pass [students] because they were a fee paying student, that would be a matter of serious discipline. [But] it would be impossible. Academics would have a rebellion. People would lie down on City Road. It's implausible."

One man who worked with international students at Sydney's top universities believes there's not enough support to help them venture out beyond their own cultural group. "They were scared of approaching Australians," says the man, who did not want to be named. "We're not generally racist, but we're low-key annoyed at international students, [and say] 'they all stick to themselves'. [Local students] They see Chinese students as a burden."

Barthel agrees, and says university support services have dwindled as profits have risen. Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan is concerned about the wellbeing issues suffered by students struggling with English, and has asked his department to look at standards.

Some in the national security community believe this isolation leaves students vulnerable to local networks with close ties to the Chinese embassy and government. One person familiar with the agencies’ concerns says Chinese students’ exposure is a “systemic problem that is created and facilitated by universities not looking after them properly”.

Norton believes the key to fixing some of the biggest issues facing Australia's universities is increasing English proficiency requirements. "That can help deal with multiple problems at the same time," he says. "It can deal with the consumer protection issues for the student. It can deal with the academic issues. It will have the practical effect of reducing the number of international students."

The story of the Chinese student who cried out for help on a university chatroom had a happy ending. He was inundated with offers of help from domestic and overseas students alike, demonstrating the cross-cultural support and understanding that international education can nurture. "Don't fret mate, this isn't an easy degree and we are all in the same boat, native or not," wrote one local student. "The fact you've come to a new country to do law as a non-native speaker is something to be proud of and is a very brave thing to do."

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