Do International Students Get the Same Opportunities as Domestic Students in Australia?

Examining the different experiences of domestic and international students, and the ways Australia could and should do better to level out this inequality. Are International Student opportunities inferior?

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With the outbreak of Coronavirus has come devastating consequences for numerous groups in Australian society, as daily life is altogether put on pause. As the pandemic escalated, the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has recommended that international students not in a position to support themselves financially should make plans to return to their home country. Morrison advised exchange students, “make your way home,” and “ensure that you can receive the support available…in your home countries… At this time, Australia must focus on its citizens. Our focus and our priority is on supporting Australians and Australian residents with the economic support that is available.”

This announcement will come as a difficult blow to international students who have up and moved their lives across an ocean, signing waivers and commitments for visas, housing and classes. Foreign students have been excluded by government assistance packages, even though many have lost the part-time jobs that they expected to keep them afloat. Many educational leaders have voiced their concern and disappointment over the cabinet’s handling of our international students who have had to pack up their lives and find (expensive) flights to their home countries. The state of the world right now is in flux no matter where you are, but the lack of support is disappointing especially when looking to other small Western countries like New Zealand and Canada who are giving the welfare of their international students much more careful consideration. You can find all the information you need as an International Student here.

We can do better.

This calls into question, however, a larger, overarching topic that has been up for debate pre-COVID19 and will loom especially when the virus and quarantine passes – do international students get the same opportunities as domestic students? In a perfect world, the country in which you were born should have nothing to do with your university experience, and you should be afforded the same opportunities and assistance as the kid sitting next to you in class who just happened to be born in Sydney. But is this really the case? And what changes can we expect to see in the aftermath of Coronavirus?

Study and Education

Are international students passing courses at the same rate as their domestic counterparts? Many universities have been accused of admitting international students that lacked the English language skills required to successfully pass their coursework, meaning they were essentially playing a rigged game where they were destined to lose. The majority of international students can speak flawless, perfect English, but the Grattan Institute suggested that official English-language requirements for a student visa in Australia is perhaps too lenient, and use the example that one of the main English language testing organisations recommends a score of 7 on its 1-9 scale for academic courses. Yet the minimum score needed for a student visa is only 5.5. 

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The Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Margaret Gardner, claimed that international and domestic students had similar pass rates, and if international students were admitted without the necessary language skills, wouldn’t we then expect to see higher rates of them failing? A study from 2016 by the Grattan Institute showed that international bachelor students failed 15% of the subjects they undertook in their first year, just a point higher than the 14% of domestic students. As they progressed in their degree, the fail rates lowered. International students are also thought to have a larger overall fail rate due to the popularity of IT, engineering or commerce courses for international students, which have hefty fail rates for domestic students too. The precedent is that these subjects are difficult and thus easier to fail, which in turn affects both international and domestic students.

When comparing the pass-fail rates of students within these specific courses, both domestic and international students were shown to have high fail rates, with no significant difference being shown. This study from the Grattan Institute would then suggest that English language abilities – or lack thereof – are not shown to be hindering performance… or at least, not putting international students significantly behind their domestic counterparts. This doesn’t mean their education, however, is not being hindered – perhaps the fail rates for international students could be significantly lower than domestic students if language barriers stopped being an issue entirely, but there’s no way to measure this kind of potential. To read more on the study, click here. 

There was commissioned government research into how different entry paths to university can affect performance for international students, but international education has become somewhat of an export industry for Australia due to the high quality of living and world-class education, capitalising on international student dollar seems to take priority over ensuring the best possible university experience for them and evening out the playing field. Better policies should be implemented in universities to assist students if they find the language barrier interferes at all with their studies… but does it make sense to be stricter on English language testing? On the one hand, it’s setting students up for failure in teaching a course they may not necessarily understand – on the other, who is to say that they will not learn or be able to succeed nonetheless? And who is Australia to take a wonderful opportunity such as studying abroad from them, or assume they will lack the capability to thrive just because English is not their mother tongue? It’s an interesting topic for debate! What do you think?    

Work and Job Opportunities

In securing internships and entry-level jobs, the landscape is already difficult – thousands upon thousands of students graduate every year and descend upon the workforce, and with the job market becoming increasingly weak and the instability of our ever-changing world, it’s hard enough out there for a domestic student.

For international students wanting to stay in Australia after graduation, it’s a whole different ball game.

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Sometimes, close-minded employers prefer to hire locals. Perhaps there’s less paperwork, they don’t have to become part of a Visa sponsorship, or simply they are ignorant and prefer to go with what they’ve always known. It’s this narrow worldview that excludes international students from various opportunities simply because they have an accent or may communicate their ideas differently, and keeping their brilliant minds from truly shining.

This is not the case for all employers, and there are many opportunities provided, such as post-study work visas and interest with those with skills on the Skilled Occupation List.

The job market is already difficult, and even more so for international students. The bare minimum should be making it the same level of difficulty for everyone – if we’re all going to struggle, we should all be struggling together, and not some more than others due to Visa fine print. 

After building their homes in Australia, international students should not feel like they have to work harder than domestic students just for an internship or be treated to narrow-minded bias.  

Tuition and Other Costs

It’s no secret that international students have to pay a higher tuition to attend Australian universities. For domestic students, education is subsidised, but international students have to pay tens of thousands of dollars just to attend the same classes. On top of that, they have to pay for accommodation and transport, but undergraduates are limited to only being able to work 40 hours a week, which, without savings, is impossible without a grant, scholarship or support from parents back home. Difference in tuition and costs is the most glaring example of international students not being afforded the same opportunities as domestic students. This is an issue all over the world, not just Australia – in the UK, in the USA, international students are required to pay more. But Australia should be setting up more scholarships and more welfare packages to make this more manageable for their students coming from overseas if they wish to continue the diversity and melting pot aspect of their student and growing adult population. Some of the fees and costs of living are almost impossible to manage, let alone a young person who is far from home and in a new country.   

Social Life and Experience

Good news! Australia is an incredibly diverse and multicultural country with a welcoming, laidback attitude. Universities are populated with countless events and activities for international and domestic students to mingle, as well as clubs and societies specifically for international students and even clubs dedicated to different languages from all over the world. Accommodation organisations like residential colleges or student apartments are the most popular housing options and are inhabited by domestic and international students alike – there is no social separation whatsoever, and international students are fully integrated from Day One. Australia is one of the most popular countries for international students to complete their degree in and that is thanks to the people, incredible lifestyle afforded to students and education. In terms of lifestyle and social opportunity, there is no difference between domestic and international – international students are welcomed by the student populace with open arms and curiosity and can be guaranteed the experience of a lifetime.

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Looking at the facts, you can see why studying in another country – whether in Australia or elsewhere – is a big decision. It is not an easy one, and it’s one that comes with roadblocks and challenges. In the age of Coronavirus, everything has been put on pause, and the Australian government is overlooking the welfare of their international students more than ever. But in doing so it has sparked public outrage and highlighted the disparity between international and domestic students. 

Some of these issues are difficult to change, or are just the nature of switching between different cultural landscapes or accommodating to a diverse classroom – but others, such as implementing more welfare packages for financial students, promoting English language assistance and tuition help – are steps forward we could and should be taking. Even if international students are failing more than domestic students, their experience of university life is not the same and we as Australians should be seriously making moves to even out the educational system for every and any student, no matter what country they were born in.