Cash cows and raised fees

What is the reason behind increased tuition fees for international students?

A cow with dollar signs on it standing in a pile of dollars Artwork by Mei Zheng

A Chinese translation of this appears here

Since 2017, Australian universities have raised tuition fees, particularly for international students, in efforts to contend with the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS), whose pool of funds is sinking.

Changes made to the CGS in 2017 were predicted to save the federal government $2.8 billion in funding over the next four years. As a result, funding provision was made contingent on particular universities’ student admissions and levels of financial transparency. In 2019, more thresholds have been added, such as the individual success rates of each eligible student.

This would explain the 54% increase of international student enrolments over the past five years.

According to the NSW Audit Office 2017 annual report, universities have dealt with decreased funding provision by substituting in overseas students’ tuition fees. These fees have increased by 23% across NSW, resulting in $2.8 billion for its universities. Overseas student tuition payments contributed $6 billion to federal university revenue.

Imaginably, international students are bearing the brunt of increased tuition fees which appear to serve universities’ financial interests over their own.

Amanda Suslio, a USyd Medical Science student, told Honi that “the cost of each unit goes up by not hundreds, but thousands of dollars.” She explained that an international student studying mechanical engineering at USyd commented that the need for extra money to be put aside for course fees has caused daily spending restrictions for their family.

RMIT University academic Jenny Weight has argued that limited access to the GGS necessitates universities viewing international students as “huge ‘cash cows’ in a cash poor sector – they’re almost desperately dependent on international student income.”

Beyond financial difficulties, international students face additional hurdles. It is often put forward that overseas students speaking English as a second language are expected to “sink or swim” when keeping up with tertiary level material.The ABC noted in 2018 that English language standards are “often too low, or can be sidestepped via loopholes.”

Indeed, almost 25% of international students in Australia can now enrol in university courses through the English Language Intensive course for Overseas Students (ELICOS). ELICLOS involves 10 to 20 weeks of intensive English lessons and assessments, allowing direct entry without needing to take more prevailing exams such as IELTS.

The lowering of English language standards is no doubt linked to universities’ need for international student tuition fee revenue, despite the fact that language barriers would    inevitably cause international students to become disadvantaged in tertiary studies.

The combination of increased tuition fees alongside lowered language standards has some international students’ ability to engage in campus life. Amaris Jiang, an international student studying Education at the USyd, commented that she was “overloaded with additional self-taught English courses” during her first semester whilst completing other units of study. In addition, she became increasingly stressed about the idea of failing a unit, “considering the substantial cost of tuition fees for each subject.” The unfortunate outcome was her decreased involvement in university life in efforts to distribute time for studying.

Universities’ hoarding of ‘cash cows’ has allowed them  to increase their funding at the expense of international student wellbeing. As alternative avenues of university funding beyond the CSG appear hazy, maybe a more practical immediate option is the introduction of ad-hoc English speaking programs on campuses.