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International students denied thousands in tuition refunds

A loophole in the way the University of Sydney handles tuition fees is denying international students tuition refunds, as Tom Joyner reports.

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A loophole in the way the University of Sydney handles tuition fees has meant international students have been unfairly denied potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in course refunds despite meeting the criteria set for domestic students.

In a pattern described by one caseworker as “plain, clear, black and white discrimination”, international students are being made to front the costs of units of study costing up to $20,000 per semester, even after withdrawing for genuine reasons, such as family bereavement or personal misadventure.

Policy officers at both SUPRA and the SRC have told Honi Soit the system is heavily stacked against international students, costing them potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

While domestic students are able to apply to have their HECS refunded under certain extenuating circumstances even after the census date has passed, there is no specific policy for international students, meaning they must appeal directly to their faculty dean or University registrar.

“For simplicity’s sake, the truth is an international student doesn’t have the right to get money back whereas a local student gets it back in a pretty straightforward manner,” said SUPRA advocacy coordinator Adrian Cardinali. “It’s plain, clear, black and white discrimination.”

SRC caseworker Mel de Silva said many international students were under a lot of pressure from their family to perform academically, which added to the stress of withdrawing from study when something went seriously wrong while studying in Australia.

“That works into a spiral and when they can’t get their fees back; it’s a complete disaster,” she said. “It ends up in poor mental health, in self-harming behaviours, in them getting ostracised by their family.”

Even if international students withdraw from a unit of study before the census date, they are typically charged an administration fee of sometimes several hundred dollars.

“The problem with [the difference in rules] is that it creates a two-tiered system. It does look like [the University] is privileging the dollar and those fees over the treatment of international students,” said Cardinali.

According to De Silva, it was extremely rare that the University refunded an international student’s fees, even with good justification. In her 16 years working as an SRC caseworker, she could name just one example.

“I think [the University is] so desperate to hang onto money. It’s a very rare occasion when they give the money back, and I think the only thing that motivates the University to do the right thing is the protection of the brand,” she said.

“It’s a sort of almost racist attitude of, well, if you want to be here, you’ve got to pay.”

Unlike domestic Australian students, international students pay up front fees of up to $40,000 per academic year for a full-time load and have restrictions on the number of hours they may legally work in Australia. International students are also precluded from NSW travel concessions.

The University did not respond to Honi’s request for comment.