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article imageOp-Ed: Australian international student scandal – No English, big money

By Paul Wallis     Oct 21, 2019 in World
Sydney - You’d think it’d be common sense for international students coming to Australia to have a good working knowledge of English. Not so, apparently. A lot of students are getting student visas, with inadequate English, and they're not doing well.
The stakes went up, a lot, when Murdoch University sued a whistleblowing professor named Associate Professor Gerd Schroder-Turk for damages and costs after his public criticism of the university regarding the welfare of a number of Indian students who are failing their courses.
The academic battle found its way into the courts soon enough. Schroder-Turk took out a Federal Court injunction to prevent his removal from the university Senate as the matter escalated. The university counter-alleges that international student enrolments are down as a result of his criticism, and that its reputation has been damaged, hence the lawsuit.
The damage seems to be a lot deeper than that, though. Murdoch University’s interesting and fully documented mix of a large number of English language skills waivers for applicants, combined at the same time as numbers of students failing, is making a point of its own.
Students are coming to Australia, apparently paying their fees, and then find themselves quite evidently disadvantaged by their lack of English skills.
This mess gets worse as the logic plays out:
• Students are paying for a university education.
• They can’t do the courses they’re paying for due to lack of English skills.
• They may have been under the impression that they would receive tuition in their own language(s).
• If so, the university may have unintentionally given that impression through its agents in Punjab. (Student applications are handled by agents in the countries of origin, and these agents aren’t too popular with the Australian government for their practices.)
• Would you sign up for an expensive university degree in the full knowledge that the university won’t be able to deliver the course?
• However, if you’re paying big money for a university education, it becomes a legal transaction, fully covered by law. The university represents that these courses are provided to people on the basis of waivers for their lack of English.
• It’s a reasonable assumption that students would believe that their language skills or in this case that their lack of language skills are taken into account when their applications are accepted.
• If, however, the university fails to deliver the tuition required, it could therefore be considered misrepresentation of the courses for which students have paid.
• That could get nasty, and it’d be a grim class action indeed if a court found against the university.
The ramifications
This story has a lot of potential downside for Australia’s entire booming international student industry, which gets about $7 billion a year from the students. The damage to credibility for the entire sector could be serious.
Consider this not-too-subtle logic:
• Why would anyone claim to provide courses to people who can’t even communicate effectively?
• Students lacking English skills are at a clear disadvantage, to put it mildly. Is that the look the universities want?
• Would you or anyone else be encouraged to sign up with an Australian university, on this basis?
Legal issues
This story may well have only just started in legal terms. This is one of the most important legal issues ever to hit the Australian education sector. I must point out that the legal matters between Murdoch University and Associate Professor Gerd Schroder-Turk are currently before the court. No inferences can (or should) be made regarding the merits of these cases, allegations or claims by either party prior to a court decision.
“Trial by media” would be spectacularly inappropriate in such very serious circumstances. Findings by the court could well rewrite the application and acceptance rules for universities around the country, and affect tens of thousands of students. The findings may also directly affect the right of students to take their own legal actions.
Critical mass for the Australian education sector
Whatever the outcome of the court cases, these incidents have raised many absolutely critical, fundamental issues for the education sector and for international students. Senior Australian academics have taken the unprecedented step of protesting to Murdoch University and asking it to drop the case to protect the right of academic free expression. That, also needs to be addressed. There’s too much at stake to be complacent. Governance of universities is too important for a “Code of Silence” to be tolerated.
Universities are competitive; they depend on a strong image. A bad look means fewer students, by definition. If things go wrong, everyone obsessively saying nothing doesn’t make those things go right. Universities also have the people best qualified to define the problems, so their comments and criticisms need to be seen in an objective context by the universities. You don’t have to like criticism, but you MUST understand it, to manage it properly.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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