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Australian universities – safe, but not very good

Posted on October 26, 2009
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October 25, 2009

UNIVERSITY bureaucrats would have danced a jig just over a week ago when a survey showed that international students rated Australia safer for study than the US or Britain.

The news follows months of damning headlines, particularly in India, about violence against international students and low-quality courses.

At the same time, federal Education Minister Julia Gillard has promised a crackdown on rorts sullying international education in Australia, saying students should not come here expecting to be given permanent residency. She has also launched a review of international education, with an interim report expected to go to the Council of Australian Governments next month.

Since news stories began appearing this year about dodgy private training colleges, universities have blamed them for tarnishing the reputation of Australian institutions.


But are the universities right? In fact, universities pioneered many of the practices that private colleges are being blamed for.

Monash University academic Bob Birrell has shown Indian students are attracted to Australian education because they are confident of getting permanent residency. He released his research three years ago, before the boom in vocational education.

Molly Yang from Central Queensland University says the 95 Chinese students in her 2007 study chose Australia as a study destination because they were “most greatly influenced by future migration”.

It is hardly surprising that enrolments are still growing. Figures from Australian Education International, an arm of the Education Department, show there was a 31 per cent increase in the number of Chinese students beginning higher education courses between May 2008 and May this year. Chinese and Indian students now make up more than 43 per cent of all higher education international enrolments.

But the migration-driven demand for Australian higher education contrasts with the main reason international students study in the US and Britain. A report released in June by the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education says: “The perceived quality of the education available in the US and the UK remains the predominant reason overseas students travel there for education.”

This finding is also reflected in the survey in which international students rated Australia first for safety. The report by IDP Education, Australia’s largest international recruitment agency, also revealed that 6000 students from eight countries rated Australia well behind the US and Britain for quality of education. Of the 1130 Indian students surveyed, 8 per cent rated Australian institutions as the most prestigious, compared with 58 per cent for the US.

The reputation of Australian universities is faltering. The Times Higher Education Supplement world rankings show there are now fewer Australian universities in the top 200 list; nine this year compared with 14 in 2004. Of those formerly in the top 100, RMIT and Curtin University are now outside the top 200. In 2004, there were two universities in the top 25: now there is just the Australian National University.

Students by and large choose a university based on word of mouth. A university’s prestige is often made or broken by its graduates.

Singaporean students who have studied in Australia say they did not like the fact that students could gain entry to courses with relatively low English scores.

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is one of the most popular tests non-English-speaking students do to gain entry to courses. Students get an overall mark from 0 to 9, with a minimum score of 7.5 deemed acceptable for linguistically demanding degrees such as law and a minimum of 7 for less demanding courses such as IT.

An examination of Victorian university websites reveals that most undergraduate degrees require a minimum IELTS of between 6 and 6.5. Teaching and some law degrees are the exception.

For postgraduate coursework programs, the range is 6 to 7 and some universities will allow you to do a PhD with 6.5. But, remember, a linguistically demanding academic course has an “acceptable” score of between 7.5 and 9.

Universities have also been employing overseas recruitment agents, many of whom also advise about migration. Again, the message is that Australian universities are offering a fast track to residency, not a quality education.

US universities and colleges haven’t made it a habit to sell their degrees through overseas recruitment agents. Instead, the better US institutions rely on reputation or use their own people to attend education fairs. Many think it is unethical to use agents and believe the students’ best interests will not be served if commissions are paid.

Erica Cervini’s higher education blog, Third Degree, can be found at

Source: The Age

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