International students: a cash cow for universities and targets for racism

July 21, 2016
'Nair' spoke out about the sexual harassment of international students. Photo: Rachel Evans

The Australian government released its National Strategy on International Students 2025 in April.

At its heart lies a strategy for exploiting international students and increasing the commercialisation of the education sector. It aims to swindle hundreds of thousands of international students and normalise the neoliberal idea that students are consumers and that education and learning are commodities.

To capitalist Australia, international students are big business. They pay astronomical fees — up to $20,000 a semester to universities, education agencies in their home country and Australia to navigate red tape. They have to buy expensive health insurance, costing about $1500 a year and many stay in overpriced university accommodation.

The international education export sector is worth $18.2 billion a year. Almost 500,000 international students a year are studying here. Most are at universities, but significant numbers are enrolled in Vocational Education institutions (TAFE) and English learning courses. The national strategy is projecting to increase this by 45% to about 725,000 international students a year by 2025.

Australia has long headhunted trained professionals from the global south. But the exploitation of students from the global south by the for-profit education sector is a relatively new money-making strategy.

The national body for international students, the Council of International Students of Australia (CISA) held a Breaking Down Barriers Conference in Darwin in early July, which was addressed by government and industry representatives.

The conference heard from students who had suffered from poverty; racist slurs and physical attacks; sexual harassment and assault; bullying and discrimination by university supervisors; and discrimination and exploitation in jobs and course placements.

Precarious housing, resulting from racism by real estate agents and exploitation by shady landlords was a big issue at the conference.

International student's visas allow them to work only 20 hours a week. Students must study full-time, attend 80% of classes and not fail any subjects. A breach of any of these requirements makes them liable for deportation. Almost 11,000 international students were deported last year.


International students typically work in restaurants, shops, nail salons, convenience stores, car washes and other lowly paid jobs.

Pino Migliorino from Cultural Perspectives, an international students' rights group, told the Conference: “International students are a highly vulnerable, exploitable workforce due to relatively poor English language skills, lack of family support and cultural knowledge, and in many cases inadequate non-wage income support. While discrimination does exist, much of this exploitation is perpetrated by employers from similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds.”

7-Eleven is a major culprit. It was found to be paying one student 47 cents an hour. Students reported the exploitation last year to the Fair Work Ombudsman, who awarded the student $20,000 in compensation.

Many students do not approach the police due to fear of deportation, racism and cultural barriers. A study at the University of Queensland's Institute for Social Research showed international students are more likely to turn to their friends and families before police.

Work placement is a compulsory part of many courses. “Amy” is studying social work at a postgraduate level and pays full fees. She has to work to survive, but also has to work, for free, for 500 hours for a relevant service provider to graduate. “Dennis” said he was offered an “internship” by a hotel for a fee of $2000. He refused when it became clear it did not relate to his accounting training.


There is growing evidence that international students are being exploited in housing and accommodation.
They are subject to a variety of deceitful practices by landlords, including property swapping, forced and unlawful eviction, cramming six students into one room, 12-hour shifts on one bed, racism from real estate agents and exploitation in homestays.

One student had to change her homestay six times in four months because she and her friend kept being thrown out. One family only allowed her five minutes to shower and another charged her a lot of money for a small room with no windows.

Sexual harassment

Female international students are more vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault due to cultural and language barriers, according to Universities Australia's Respect Now Always campaign against campus sexual violence. International students are often the “silent” victims of assault and harassment.

“Nair” spoke out at the conference. She is an international student who was sexually harassed in 2014. She was convinced to go public after talking to a CISA representative.

Nair said: “I came to realise it was not my fault and I wanted more people to have the courage to talk about what happened to them so we can address this issue. So I went public and the media picked it up. There is a lot of sexual harassment of international students, mostly, but not all, women.

“We don't talk about it because we are ashamed, and students think it is not culturally acceptable to step forward. My message for other international students is: 'Don't be afraid to speak up'.”

“Aisha”, another international student, told Green Left Weekly student visas do not allow women to access reproductive rights.

“The health insurance we have to pay for doesn't cover abortions nor pap smears. We also have to pay $45 for just 2 weeks of the pill. Domestic students pay $9 comparatively. So, it's hard to be sexually active and if we get raped it's hard to get an abortion.”

Minh Duong told the conference he was attacked by neo-Nazis while walking home in 2012. He was brutally beaten and left to die. He survived, but needed $25,000 worth of dental work and weeks in hospital. After he recovered, he went back to Vietnam for a visit, but was refused re-entry to Australia to finish his studies. It took a media storm and an online petition for Duong to be granted his study rights.

Migliorino quoted an Institute for Social Research study that showed that “57% of international students found Australia to be less safe than they had expected; 50% who reported perceived threats to their safety believed these threats had a racial, religious or cultural dimension compared with 17% of domestic students; and 49% believed international students were unsafe.”

Racism and discrimination

Conference participants called for equality in transport costs, a cap on fees for their degrees, guaranteed cheap housing and anti-racism and anti-rape culture campaigns on campus and in the community. The NSW government charges international students adult rates for transport and the Victorian government also charges international students more.

Racism is clearly on the rise in Australia and international students fear harassment will escalate. “Ram” said: “We tell each other that we can't go to rallies. Wherever the police might be involved we don't attend because that might be risky for our visa. When the Department of Immigration spoke at the CISA Conference, well, everyone was so quiet. It is hard for any student to raise any issues in front of them.”

The education sector is shackled by market forces and international students are the clear losers.

Education activist Paola Freire said: “Education either functions as an instrument to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom...”

The fight for education to remain a right, not a privilege regardless of country of origin or how rich you are is a major battleground for those fighting to stop commodification infecting every area of life.

Cuba educates 27,000 international students a year for free. Australia should take note of this example and realise that international students and their allies are resisting the neoliberal chains the government is placing around them.

[The student's names have been changed due to their fear of recrimination by authorities.]

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