Since the recent protests by Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney, the media spotlight has been on Australia’s international education industry. It’s an export industry estimated to be worth around $14 billion a year, and the industry that I’ve earned my living from for the last four years. I started working as an English teacher in a private language school, and more recently I’ve been working as an examiner for the English exam that people take if they want to migrate to Australia or study in one of our universities.
The issue is multi-faceted, and impossible to explore in depth in one post. Wendy Carlisle found a similar problem in her Four Corners report last night. She exposed the practice of some vocational schools failing to provide the services and qualifications that international students have paid for, and also the migration agents who take large sums of money from prospective Australians, promising them a back door into the country if the price is right. You can watch the report here.
While the report highlighted some of the grayer areas in the industry, it didn’t get anywhere close to the heart of things. I’m not pretending that I’ll be able to either. The issue runs through all levels of Australia’s education system, not just the shonky vocational schools fast-tracking hairdressers and cooks towards the Holy Grail of Australian Permanent Residency. It involves our universities, private language schools, TAFEs, primary and high schools.
Some of it’s about Australia – our migration and education policies, the negligent lack of government regulation, the criminal stripping of public funds from universities, the incessant desire for increased revenue. The sheer idiocy of turning education into a business. A skilled migration and university system that churns out qualified accountants and nurses, but fails to ensure they have the language skills to work in their fields.
You have to look at where the people are coming from too. Recent attention has been on students coming from India, and apparently about one-third of the students in vocational colleges are Indian, but there are large numbers of people coming from China, South Korea, Nepal and Bangladesh too. There are smaller, yet still significant numbers of people coming from places like South Africa, Jordan, Japan, Peru, Thailand, Brazil and Sri Lanka.
Some of these people are interested in gaining qualifications in Australian institutions and then returning to their countries to work. But most are interested in getting Australian Permanent Residency. The size of the industry, and the increasing number of people arriving in Australia for this purpose, is testament to how fortunate we are in Australia. I’ll admit that I’m often first in line to criticize the Australian Government, Labor or Liberal, but I also know that in comparison to where these people are coming from, Australia is wealthy, stable, liberal, and under-populated; we have healthcare, free public education, a pension, unemployment benefits and fantastic weather is the icing on top. Why wouldn’t people want to live here if they could?
Many of the countries I mentioned above are developing, or suffering from problems like poverty, over-population and unemployment at levels never seen in Australia. While some of the difficulties they encounter in Australia are due to lack of government regulation or exploitation from dodgy operators (often from within their own ethnic group), I think we need to ask why they are coming here in the first place.
Some argue that developed countries need to shoulder responsibility for taking action on climate change. I would argue that we need to take some responsibility for the poor conditions in other countries too. The wealth of developed nations has in part been generated by keeping poor countries poor, by propping up repressive governments and imposing economic conditions on aid which put a band-aid on the problems while allowing multi-nationals to leach the country of their human and mineral resources.
A little over the top? Perhaps. Definitely dramatic. But consider for a moment that the people from these countries applying for skilled migration to Australia, or those international students in Australian universities – they are mostly from the top-end of their societies. In their home countries they are comparatively well-off, even if they aren’t here. Their parents are often subsidizing their education in Australia, with the view that once they have permanent residency and start working, they will start sending money back home, or bring out the rest of the family.
I get the image that some of these countries are sinking ships, economically, politically and socially. Less people in the world might be in poverty, but the gap between the distance between the richest and the poorest is widening. Those who can afford to jump ship do, understandably paying the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to migrate to Australia. They might become the poor and exploited here, but they’re better off than they were, and their children will benefit the most. And they’re infinitely better off than the poor and exploited they left behind.