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International students left in dark as Sydney Uni cancels scholarships without warning

Tom Joyner reports on an ongoing financial saga between the University of Sydney and students enrolled in a partnership program with Harbin Institute of Technology.

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Read in Chinese. 阅读中文版.

International students enrolled in a partner program with a Chinese university have been left short-changed after the University of Sydney cancelled their scholarships worth thousands of dollars without warning or explanation.

Dozens of Chinese students from Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) studying in Sydney as part of a dual-degree program say payments for scholarships worth 10 per cent of their tuition costs had not been made in as long as two years, with some never receiving any at all.

Repeated attempts by students to contact the University for answers were ignored or palmed off to other departments.

The “2+2 Engineering and Information Technology Program” offers students from HIT the opportunity to spend two years studying engineering at Sydney University to graduate with a degree from both institutions.

The scholarships are offered to students by Sydney University and are worth up to $8,000 in reduced fees over four semesters.

“I asked last year and [a student services officer] told me, ‘Yes it will be paid in maybe August or September’. Then I asked her this year and she also gave me the same answer,” said one student who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

“I just don’t know why they kick us like a ball from here to there. They just need to tell us the reason, maybe our average score. We respect that. We just need some reason to let us know what happened.”

Students claim the payment of the scholarship was entirely erratic, with some receiving it for one semester and some for two before the payments ceased. Others said they had never received any payments at all.

There was also no documentation to demonstrate the scholarship existed beyond a confirmation email from then head of student recruitment and admissions, Lesley Vanderkwast.

The email, seen by Honi, says the only criteria for the scholarship was a 65-point credit average to receive payments each semester. However the vast majority of the 33 affected students Honi spoke with had maintained an average of 75 or above.

“I am emailing you to advise that you are eligible for the 10% tuition fee scholarship under the 2 + 2 arrangement with your university and the Faculty of Engineering & IT. Well done on your current GPA from your recent studies,” the email reads.

Honi understands Vanderkwast no longer works in the recruitment and admissions office.

A University spokesperson said the Engineering and IT Faculty had only recently been approached by a “handful of students” and their concerns were being investigated. The program itself is now under review, according to the spokesperson.

Electrical engineering student Emmi Zhao said the last scholarship payment she received was in August 2014, and hadn’t heard back from the University since. Accordingly, she said, many students felt betrayed by the University.

“Some of them feel angry because not a lot of them are presently in a fantastic financial situation. $4,000 can be at least four months rent, food and textbooks. It’s a big issue,” she said. “No one got any information. We keep asking but no one answers.”

Zhao said she and other Chinese students in her situation felt powerless to do anything because they were unsure of their legal rights. “For us international students, to find a lawyer is a little bit complex. We aren’t even familiar with the specific process of finding one.”

Council of International Students Australia president, Nina Khairina, said not enough international students were fully aware of their legal rights when it came to university finances, including scholarships and fees.

“If students are having issues with their scholarship payments, they can pursue it with the New South Wales Ombudsman if they want to lodge a complaint,” she said. “Not many students are aware of this, unfortunately.”