Rebecca Huntley Columnist

Rebecca is a director of The Mind & Mood Report, an author and social commentator with a background in publishing, academia and politics. She holds degrees in law and film studies and a PhD in Gender Studies.

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Are Australian universities over-hyped?

Published 26 September 2012 06:38, Updated 26 September 2012 11:50

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Are Australian universities over-hyped?

For some foreign students, the experience of studying in Australian universities and training colleges isn’t adding up. Photo: Reuters

Brand Australia is in serious trouble with potential international students and that’s going to have a significant effect on the education industry.

A few years ago we co-produced a report with KPMG on the future of Australia, Future Focus. We presented two different scenarios to 13 discussion groups painting a picture of a possible Australia in 2020; one of these scenarios saw Australia as a crucial provider of education services to the Asia-Pacific.

The idea that we would be an education hub for the region was strongly supported by the urban and regional groups we conducted in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. “Selling education resources is a great idea”. “Education is potentially a big money-spinner for us”. “Foreign students do bring a lot of money in”. And so on. The idea that Australia can maintain its status as an important education provider for students from China and India in particular remains important to Australians who worry about the future of the economy as the mining boom slows.

And yet a very recent study we conducted in concert with SBS on the mind and mood of new migrants shows that brand Australia is out of favour with international students. And it’s not just because the high Australian dollar has made studying here much more expensive.

In the research for our Mind & Mood of New Migrants report we talked to international students from Vietnam, India and China who were studying at universities and training colleges. They talked about being “doubly exploited”. They were paying copious amounts of money for an Australian education and spoke at length about the high cost of everything related to living and learning in this country.

I talked to a group of young Chinese women paying full fees – tens of thousands of dollars – to study nursing. They had engaged tutors to assist them with passing language tests and driving instructors to help them pass driving tests (a licence is required by most agencies for work as a nurse). These women were all working in nursing homes as personal care assistants, helping residents go to the toilet, shower, dress and eat.

Some of these women were finding it difficult to secure anything but the odd causal shift here and there, sometimes requiring long commute times. They were paying high amounts of money for substandard accommodation and received no student discounts for transport at all. As one of the young women told me “every day I feel like I am being robbed”.

All of this investment might be considered worthwhile if the quality of education they were getting was up to scratch. But this does not always seem to be the case. Some international students we talked to described the poor quality training provided in particularly by vocational colleges; they seemed to be paying large sums of money for a substandard education. This was particularly the case in the hospitality sector.

“The teachers aren’t qualified”, said one Indian student. “I have been studying [cooking] for nearly three years and I don’t know the ABC of cookery … they didn’t teach me how to hold the knife properly.” “If you have an international student going to a college, they don’t really care if you are learning or not learning,” said another Indian student. “They only care [if] you have paid the fees. They don’t care a damn if you fail or you pass.” The difficulty for many of these students is that their Australian qualification is close to worthless back home; for example the Chinese nursing students already had Chinese qualifications and the Indian hospitality students didn’t need qualifications to cook in restaurants in India.

It’s clear, too, that the experience of studying in Australia isn’t being matched by the marketing pitched at foreign students before they come. The gap between what has been promised and what has been delivered was dramatic, as one Indian student described. “At the seminars promoting Australian courses in India ... they tell us that everything is there [in Australia], easily we can get job. Accommodation, everything will be arranged. Everything will be easy. But when we come here and see the reality, that isn’t it. It’s very different.”

All in all, international students clearly feel that studying in Australia is an expensive proposition, regardless of the strength of the Australian dollar; some even felt exploited. For Australia to retain its strong brand position as an education service provider to the Asia-Pacific, international students need to feel better supported.

What are government and education providers doing to help international students with access to quality and affordable accommodation and transport? And what are they doing to monitor the quality of education in training colleges and institutes?

With American high school and college degrees becoming more and more attractive to wealthy Asian students, Australia as an education destination could well be in trouble.