By Syed Atiq ul Hassan

In the last 40 years, Australia has not only attracted foreign professionals to permanently make Australia their home but also international students who aim for higher education and professional development. World’s best universities, research institutes and the fine Australian education system have made Australia an increasingly popular study destination for international students.

Today, Australia is the third most popular study destination in the English-speaking world. In the last 20 years, the number of annual foreign enrolments has almost doubled and the figures for the last three years show that the rate of annual foreign enrolments has increased by 20 per cent a year.

International students are playing a significant role in the Australian economy. According to sources, international students contribute around $15 billion a year to Australian wealth.

In Australia foreign students add a rich, vibrant layer to Australian diversity. They provide a considerable labour force for local businesses. Some of these students come to Australia with the goal of settling permanently while others return to their homeland after achieving their academic goals. When these students go back to their countries they become ambassadors for Australia. Their stories become the dream for many youngsters and professionals who then want to experience Australian life.

More than 60 per cent of foreign students are enrolled in the Australian vocational education system every year. These foreign students, mostly from Asia, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe, come to Australia to improve their English language skills, to get an occupational or professional qualification, and to work part time – to gain Australian work experience and help meet their educational and living expenditure. They may even earn enough to send back to their relatives overseas. Attending college, studying and doing part time work (mostly labour) is not easy, yet they meet these challenges: they are strong and committed to work hard for a better life.

The majority of international (vocational) students are enrolled in private international colleges. There are more than 100 of these in Australia and the majority of them are in New South Wales and Victoria. Running an international college can be a highly profitable business for the operators. And undoubtedly some of these international colleges are delivering a quality education. Nevertheless, the vocational education system, particularly for international students, has not been well monitored and appraised by the authorities concerned.

Cashing in on the huge flow of overseas students to Australia several international colleges, migration agents and small business employers are exploiting these students. For example, once students arrive in Australia and join their college they find that they are neglected with given little student support. Then there are other non-educational issues they experience, for example, inadequate and substandard housing, workplace exploitation by unscrupulous employers, inappropriate student transport concessions and so on. There is nowhere they can get sufficient help and assistance.

Another, regrettable, fact is that there are numerous international colleges that enrol many foreign students by offering low fee, minimum numbers of classes per week and have no compliance requirements for classroom attendance – resulting in a poor quality education. As per the immigration laws, foreign students are only allowed to work 20 hours a week in Australia. There are instances where foreign students are offered cash jobs for working more than 20 hours a week. Therefore, motivated by the practices of dodgy colleges and small business owners, many overseas students choose these colleges to be enrolled in so they can work long-hours for cash.

Of course, there are audits, performance review procedures, inspections and penalties on non-compliance set by the Vocational Education and Training Accreditation Board (VETAB) and other government departments. Nevertheless, old, routine and traditional procedures need to be re-examined by the authorities concerned in order to fulfil the current demands of all the stakeholders including foreign agents and students.

Highly publicised attacks on Indian youth in Australia in 2010 revealed that there wasn’t any co-ordination between education departments and other administrative agencies for the social and economical protection of foreign students during their stay in Australia. According to reports, over the first eight months of 2009, the Overseas Students Support Network, Australia, received about 1,500 legitimate and serious complaints. The majority of these were related to non-academic issues including safety, living and work-related matters.

On the other hand, private international vocational colleges are also facing instability due to changing immigration policies and compliances imposed by related government agencies. The rate of closure of private international colleges is continuously increasing. Foreign students lost thousands of dollars by the sudden closure of some colleges. They don’t get enough help to get refunds. The ABC’s Four Corners program earlier in 2009 reported on overseas students who had lost tens of thousands of dollars to colleges, or migration or education agents, and they didn’t know where to go or what to do.

The substantial costs of renting, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, the high cost of transport and even food prices make it hard for foreign students to cover their daily living and educational expenses by working just 20 hours a week. The immigration department must re-evaluate student working hours to take into account the significant increased cost of living in metropolitan cities of Australia in recent years. Otherwise the number of students working unlawfully long-hours on low wages will continue to increase.

It has also been reported that students are paid less than the minimum wage, which is now around $15.00 per hour. Private business owners pay up to $10 per hour which in Australia is effectively slave labour rates. Work-related injuries, incidences of depression and threats from the employers to the foreign students will keep increasing.

Medical insurance is another area where foreign students have many problems. They find face delays in receiving reimbursements for medical bills particularly in cases of ordinary illness.

Foreign students receive no assistance from their colleges, nor is there a government agency, like a job network, where they can get help to find work which suits them. Australian government needs to address this area. There should be a job network type of government agency to exclusively look after foreign students.

Private colleges’ increase their enrolment charges and fees with little notice and in some cases it becomes hard for students to re-enrol for the next term. Non-payment or a delay in payment may result termination from the college. It is understood that colleges need to review and set their fees to meet their increasing running costs; however, increases in charges must be done with the close consultation of all the stakeholders, including government. The welfare issues of foreign students are important for Australia to make Australian good image. To keep the Australian dream alive for foreign students and professionals, it is important that their Australian experience is a positive one. This will benefit all the stakeholders involved.