On 13 May, 180 members of the Murdoch University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) met to express their solidarity with whistle blowers who had exposed the university’s practice of lowering English language requirements to boost the recruitment of fee-paying international students.
Senior maths lecturers Dr Duncan Farrow and Professor Graeme Hocking were given a standing ovation by union members. Both academics appeared on the ABC Four Corners 6 May report “Cash Cows”, which made public leaked emails from admissions staff showing Murdoch waived English entry scores for some students, contributing to a dramatic growth in fee-paying international student numbers and increasing stress for both students and staff.
At the meeting, Murdoch NTEU members passed a resolution supporting staff and students who had been interviewed by Four Corners and called on Murdoch University management immediately to end practices including “the waiver of English entry standards, the double dipping of international student agents, and the lack of appropriate academic support offered to its international students”.
Additionally, the meeting demanded a “full, open, independent and transparent inquiry” into the university’s recruitment and support of international students, grievance and complaint processes and student welfare and mental health.
Members also expressed their “strong support for Murdoch University students, particularly international students”, noting that “the issue of English language competency could become racially divisive”.
In 2018, Australia hosted a record 690,000 international students, 380,000 of them enrolled in the nation’s 40 universities. In February, education minister Dan Tehan boasted that Australia will “leapfrog the UK to become the world’s second most popular destination for international students this year”, bringing in $34 billion in export revenue.
According to Tehan, Australia’s “global reputation as a leader in higher education” is a consequence of “decades of investment, hard work and the commitment of world-class scholars, teachers and administrators”.
Yet federal government funding has been slashed.
According to the NTEU, $10 billion has been cut from the sector over the last seven years, resulting in low-income students being priced out of university, cancellation of courses, crowded classrooms, reduced student services and casualisation of teaching staff.
Cash-strapped universities have looked to offshore and international student recruitment to meet the funding shortfall. Federal government changes in 2016 gave universities greater autonomy to determine prospective international students’ English language proficiency, without independent scrutiny.
Four Corners reported that universities were finding ways to admit international students who had failed to achieve the university’s own published English language standards or who, in some cases, had sat no internationally accredited English language test at all. As a consequence, international students were arriving from overseas without sufficient English skills to cope with the demands of their university courses, resulting in increased stress for both university staff and students.
In 2018, 680 international students enrolled at Murdoch’s Perth campus, a 92 percent increase on the previous year. Four Corners reported that admissions staff were repeatedly asked by university management to admit students who did not meet the university's published English entry standards.
In the first semester of 2018, Dr Duncan Farrow, a senior mathematics lecturer and academic misconduct investigator at Murdoch University, noticed a dramatic increase in cases of academic misconduct by students, such as plagiarism. He told Four Corners that among international students undertaking the master’s of IT course:
“Over 60 per cent of the students failed at least one of their four units that they’d taken and 14 per cent had passed no units at all.”
Professor Graeme Hocking, head of discipline at Murdoch University’s School of Engineering and IT, expressed similar concerns. He told Four Corners that a spike in plagiarism cases indicated that “something had gone wrong in the process of the university”.
“Somehow, by means I don’t know, students had been admitted who were not able to complete the work”, said Professor Hocking.
Associate professor Gerd Schroder-Turk, who represents staff on the Murdoch University Senate, told Four Corners: “Admitting students who don’t have the right qualifications, or right prerequisites, or correct language capabilities is setting them up for failure.”
“This is just not what a university should do. That’s not what education is about, he said.
Since Four Corners went to air, Murdoch University has doubled down. In an email to all students on 8 May, vice-chancellor Eeva Leinonen rejected the claims made by Four Corners and insisted that the University’s aggressive international student recruitment was about “enriching the learning and experience of university for all of us”.
Leinonen asserted that Murdoch University’s international student recruitment was low by other Australian university standards and was guided by “our principles of equity, social justice, opportunity, sustainability and global responsibility”.
Yet the experience for a growing number of international students contradicts Leinonen’s claims. International students have reported racism, underpayment by employers and being charged exorbitant rent for student accommodation.
A 2017 study by the University of NSW and the University of Technology Sydney, which interviewed 2392 international students, found that a quarter of those surveyed earn $12 per hour or less and 43 per cent earn $15 or less in their lowest paid job. Students were often paid in cash, and some employers withheld cash payments, allegedly to cover “expenses”.
Compounded with the isolation and homesickness many international students face, such exploitation can have a devastating impact. In January, a coroner's court investigation found 27 international students had died by suicide in six years in Victoria alone.
Schroder-Turk told Four Corners:
“When students mention in emails self-harm, when students open up over issues of extreme financial distress, when students tell you about their concerns of not having their family with them, then you do get very worried. Young people, well, all people, but young people who are out of their comfort zone are vulnerable.”
On 9 May, in an interview with ABC radio’s Drive program, Murdoch University chancellor David Flanagan again denied claims that Murdoch was waiving English language requirements for international students. Additionally, he refused to guarantee the jobs of staff who spoke publicly about the university’s international student recruitment practices.
Murdoch management’s head-in-the-sand response has deeply angered university staff.
On 15 May, in an article published in the Australian newspaper, NTEU national president Alison Barnes and Western Australian division secretary Jonathan Hallett declared the union will strongly defend members who shed light on universities’ exploitative practices.
“We will not stand by and watch our fellow members penalised for speaking out”, they wrote.
Alexis Vassiley is a member of the Curtin University branch of the NTEU.