International students: Cash cows for Australian capitalism

By Andy Giannotis

“If there is one principle that governs the export of Australian education, it is now simply money”. This was the introduction to a Four Corners program titled “Holy Cash Cows” aired on ABC television at the end of July. The program highlighted the fact that international students are Australia’s third largest source of export revenue, after coal and iron ore, worth approximately $15 billion in 2008. That year, international student enrolments numbered over 500,000.

An Access Economics study found that from 2006 to 2008, international student enrolments grew by about 43.1%, while in 2006-07, the private sector of the industry received an increase of over 93% in enrolments. The biggest growth in the private sector was registered in Victoria, where enrolments increased by a whopping 250%. Victoria is also the most scandal-prone state when it comes to dodgy education businesses going under or being investigated by government authorities. In New South Wales, private enrolments rose by 130%.

This growth in the private education sector is related to the federal government’s skilled migration programs, which link permanent residency opportunities with the completion of particular qualifications in Australia. In 2005, the program was expanded to include cheaper vocational training in hairdressing, cooking and motor mechanics. Many international students in these courses already hold qualifications from their home country for work in these or other areas, but hope that the diploma courses here will help them gain permanent residency.

Federal education minister Julia Gillard has tried to spin study programs being linked to permanent residency. “Coming here as an international student to study is about being a student in this country”, she remarked on July 28. “Applying to be a permanent migrant to this country is about our immigration system, and people should not confuse the two. They are separate processes.” However, the expansion of the program has given the private sector a great business opportunity: over the last few years a host of privately run colleges for international students have sprung up. But while charging exorbitant fees, they are under-resourced and under-regulated.

While Australian citizens are able to study through a higher education scheme in which subsidised fees are deferred until they enter full-time employment, all international students are required to pay full fees up front. On average, they pay $21,000 in annual tuition fees. On top of educational expenses, international students have to pay living costs that are often considerably higher than in their home countries. Often the high cost of living in Australia forces them to find cheaper housing far from the campuses where they study. The Australian government also places visa restrictions on international students that do not allow them to work more than 20 hours per week.

Given the high cost of education and living expenses, many international students are forced to earn wages “under the counter” in order to get around Australia’s work laws. These unofficial employment arrangements enable employers to super-exploit their employees, who are not protected by minimum legal standards. These conditions go hand-in-hand with having to endure the ingrained racist prejudices that pervade Australian society.

On June 17, researchers from Canberra’s Australian National University sent out 4000 fake job applications in response to employment advertisements in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane using ethnically distinct names. They found Chinese applicants needed to send 68% more applications than those with Anglo-Celtic names to get the same number of interviews, while Middle Eastern job-seekers required an additional 64%. Those with Aboriginal names required an additional 35%.

The Rudd government’s “education revolution” is part of the so-called third wave of economic reform — a “human capital revolution, an education revolution, a skills revolution”. But Rudd’s education blueprint openly stresses serving the interests of big business. The federal ALP’s policy document, Skilling Australia for the Future, not only repeatedly trumpets its business origins, but gloats at being more in tune with business than the education policy of the Howard government.

Australia does have a skills shortage. Years of tertiary education funding cuts, coupled with declining rates of apprenticeships, have brought a decline in the domestic supply of skilled labour. But the Rudd government’s “up-skilling” of “human capital” is more akin to retooling a worn machine than it is to providing working people with a genuine, rounded, fulfilling education. For students it means further marketisation of tertiary education and the increased tying of the content and organisation of education to the needs of big business, a process that will sharply increase the education system’s narrowly vocational emphasis.

This year 13,000 Australians missed out on first round offers for university places, an increase of 3000 from 2008. By contrast, higher education enrolments in Venezuela have been increasing dramatically under the anti-capitalist Bolivarian Revolution led by socialist president Hugo Chavez. In 1998 there were about 600,000 students enrolled in universities; by 2007 the number had risen to 1.8 million. Despite the fact that Venezuela is a much poorer country than Australia — with a per capita GDP one-fourth that of Australia — under the Chavez government, university education is provided free of charge.

In 2004, the revolutionary socialist governments of Cuba and Venezuela signed an agreement aimed at meeting the Education for All goal, set by the April 2000 UN-organised World Education Forum, of assuring universal primary education by 2015, not only for their countries but for all Latin Americans. This agreement was part of a broader cooperative pact — the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), which aims to promote economic and social development among Latin American countries based on solidarity rather than the corporate profit-oriented “free trade” development model promoted by US imperialism.

The first part of the ALBA educational goal, basic literacy for all Venezuelans, was rapidly achieved. The program, known as Mission Robinson, is financed by the Venezuelan government and staffed by thousands of Cuban teachers. In less than two years, they have taught 1.5 million Venezuelans to read and write. Mission Robinson uses the Cuban study technique “Yes I Can”, which is also used in 20 other countries in Latin America and Africa.

ALBA also bolsters Cuba’s revolutionary tradition of offering free university education, especially medical training, to students from other Third World countries, and even US students from poor backgrounds. In an article in the October 2008 New Internationalist, Fremantle surgeon Katherine Edyvane noted: “Cuba has helped many in its own region and around the world, sending out much-needed doctors and training medical students in Cuba. In 2005 there were 12,000 medical students from 83 countries, all on scholarships paid for by the Cuban Government — 1,600 overseas doctors graduated. In the next 10 years Cuba intends to ‘up-scale’ and train a further 10,000 a year — 100,000 in all. (Australia, whose population of 21 million is almost double that of Cuba, trains 1,500 a year.) While many of the foreign students in Cuba are from Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa, the list also includes 60 Hispanic and African-American students from the US who cannot afford the fees of private medical schools at home.”

Cuba’s Latin American Medical School (ELAM), built in 1998, is the largest medical school in the world by enrolment, with approximately 12,000 students from 29 countries in 2007, including 90 students from the US. The Cuban government-provided scholarship to the school includes full tuition, dormitory housing, three meals per day at the campus cafeteria, textbooks in Spanish for all courses, school uniform, basic toiletries, bedding and a small monthly stipend of 100 Cuban pesos.

Fashioned after Cuba’s ELAM, a second ELAM is being built in Venezuela. It will be the 10th medical school in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East founded by Cuban medical teachers since 1976, when the first one was built in Yemen. Venezuela’s ELAM will be able to provide free medical training for 100,000 physicians over a decade. This commitment amounts to the equivalent of a US$20-30 billion contribution to underdeveloped countries and is yet another aspect of the new Bolivarian education system.

The Cuban and Venezuelan approach to international students contrasts markedly with that in Australia, where they are treated as “cash cows”, paying huge fees for tuition, and must pay for their own accommodation and meals. Education is a human right and shouldn’t be linked to profits or residency opportunities.