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Advance Australia Fare?

Cash cow or ordinary people? Kigen Mera unfolds the exploitation of international student rights in the past decades.

Photo by Benny Shen

Australia has a long history of  relying on international students for revenue and for a variety of reasons, is one of the most popular destinations for studying abroad. As of 2017, NSW alone had 350 000 international students enrolled in the higher education sector, making up 20% of the total Australian student population . Within the University of Sydney, the international student population accounts for two-fifth of all students enrolled. Regardless of nationality or financial capability, each international student pays an annual tuition fee of $40 000, equivalent to the amount paid by roughly 4 domestic students. International students however, are not able to access  study loans, and must pay the fees up-front.. To say that international students have helped the growth of the education sector into one of the largest industries in Australia is an understatement – we play a core role in the Australian higher education sector as it exists today.

So why did we choose Australia? Some chose to study here because of the belief that Australia provides quality education, that Australia fosters a multicultural environment where they will not be alienated or that Australia has advanced infrastructure. However, these stereotypical understandings of Australia come with great costs, and it is because of these ideas that international students time and time again have passed their money over to universities and nurtured the unfathomable appetite of institutions and governments. Despite paying so much for tuition, international students in NSW are also subject to forms of inequality in society, one of the most noticeable being public transport.

The history of activism

NSW, being home to the largest international student population in Australia, is one of the only two states currently not offering student concession to international students. As early as 1989, the NSW government stopped issuing travel concessions to international students. The debate around this topic kept building, and finally a movement towards a fair fare system emerged in 2006. The Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) brought the matter to the courts. Unexpectedly, the NSW government decided to pass the Travel Administration Amendment (Travel Concession) Bill 2006 to legalise the discrimination against international students, and which gave travel concession only to certain scholarship holders. In 2015 however, the government decided to revoke even the travel concession offered to scholarship students.

In 2017, the Student Council at Western Sydney University, along with a number of university student bodies including the USyd SRC, organized a campaign to collect thousands of signatures in an effort to change the policies. While this issue attracted the attention of the state parliament on a few occasions, the matter has largely died down due to the lack of follow-up campaigns and petitions. As the situation sits right now, the law remains intact after some two years of inaction.

The basis for change

Excluding international students from the travel concession scheme is incorrect in many aspects. In fact, the foundational bill upon which the travel concession was passed in 2006 had a very irrational explanation. At the time, the justification given by the former deputy premier John Watkins was that these resources are to be given to “those considered most in need.” He added that being able to pay $40 000 every year for tuition is a gesture to the government that international students are “fully self-sufficient and able to meet their own living expenses.”

First of all, saying that all international students are wealthy is an ignorant generalisation. Being able to pay the tuition fee does not mean we are capable of covering the enormous living expenses that we must incur to live here. An investigation done by Destination NSW in 2017 showed that an international student visitor spends on average $15,837 every year in addition to the notoriously high tuition fee. For students living further away from campus, this figure could be even higher since they have to commute across Sydney a few times a week. In order to pay the tuition fee, many international student families had to make great sacrifices and are barely meeting the fee demand. Furthermore, it fails to account for international students with poor financial backgrounds that are supported by scholarship programs. Some students have tried to survive through working, but the requirements that come with a student visa limits the hours an international student can work to only 20 hours per week, making it impracticable for us to sustain living and studying expenses without family assistance. If anyone is considered “most in need” of travel concessions, it would be the international students who sacrifice so much and yet have negligible returns.

Secondly, international students enrolled in a course that is longer than six months will be considered an Australian resident for tax purposes, meaning that we will be taxed at the same rate as Australians. As we know, one of the primary purposes behind taxation is to use this revenue to generate public services for the taxpayers. However, as taxpayers, international students are deprived of these basic public services. This alone is outrageous and discriminatory. In 2018, the NSW government had a budget surplus of $1.2 billion dollars. The amount required to cover all international student concessions is but a fraction of this enormous income. What this tells us is that the government has the capacity to include international students in the concession scheme, but that it cannot care less about helping international students.

Future actions

While the outbreak of COVID-19 has effectively put a pause on all forms of physical activism, online activism may still be an option. At this time of crisis, the top priority is taking extra care to protect our health, but we should not forget the rights we have been deprived of. Once the outbreak is under control and society is restored to the way it was before, the government will continue to exploit the rights of international students, as they are doing now

To build a fair Australia, it is by no means righteous to take from certain groups of people just because of their nationality and not expect to give anything in return. For too long, international students have been treated as cash cows and exploited at the government’s will. This has to end. t’s time to give international students a fair go at fares.