Australia’s international student rort is about to be exposed

By Leith van Onselen

Tonight is shaping up as a seminal moment for Australia’s bulging international student industry, with ABC’s Four Corners to run a segment tonight, entitled “Cash Cows”, which promises to expose how “Australia’s higher education system is being undermined by a growing reliance on foreign fee-paying students”:

Academics and students are speaking out to reveal a picture, across the nation, of compromised academic standards.

“Many students seemed to be unable to understand instructions or understand the material that was put in front of them.” Academic

“I would do my best to make sure that the team would understand the topic each week, and then I would get them to send to me what they had written, and I would try and rephrase it into more readable English.” Student…

Teaching staff say that universities are risking their reputations by taking on students who are not capable of advanced levels of learning.

“Admitting students who don’t have the right qualifications, or right prerequisites, or correct language capabilities is setting them up for failure. This is just not what a university should do. That’s not what education is about.” Academic

Insiders warn that with international student numbers continuing to grow, the problem needs to be tackled urgently.

“I think it’s a train wreck. I think it’s, it’s coming and it’s coming hard and the incoming government’s going to have to deal with (it).” Private education consultant.

The international student influx has led to regular and widespread reports of cheating and an erosion of education standards across Australia’s tertiary institutions.

The issue first burst into the spotlight in 2011 when economist, Gigi Foster, released damning empirical evidence showing that tertiary education standards are being lowered by high numbers of Non-English Speaking (NESB) international students:


Do international students and/or students from non-English language speaking backgrounds (NESB students) perform worse than other students in Australian undergraduate classrooms? What happens to other students’ marks when these students are added to classrooms? I provide new empirical evidence on these questions using very recent administrative panel data from the business faculties of two Australian Technology Network universities. Results show that both international students and NESB students perform significantly worse than other students, even controlling for selection into courses. Both effects are large and do not disappear after the first semester, but non-English speaking background predicts substantially more of a reduction in marks than international student status. Adding international NESB students to a tutorial leads to a reduction in the marks of English-speaking students in that tutorial, whereas the marks of all students benefit from the addition of domestic NESB students to tutorials. Finally, evidence of an upward buoying effect on marks is found from adding international NESB students to courses, which is likely due to the presence of grading on a curve at the course level, but this effect is only felt by international NESB students themselves. Logic suggests that this rise is unlikely to be due to a true learning effect, implying that on average, international NESB students’ already low marks are inflated in courses with large fractions of such students.

Since then, regular reports have emerged sounding the alarm.

For example, in 2014 a large-scale essay ghostwriting service targeting Chinese students made national headlines. Whistleblowing academics also accused their universities of contributing to systemic cheating by welcoming international students who are “functionally illiterate”.

In 2015, both Fairfax and the ABC reported that international student colleges had received cash kickbacks for helping overseas workers and students win Australian visas using fake qualifications.

Also in 2015, Four Corners aired a report entitled “Degrees of Deception”, which uncovered that cheating and plagiarism was rife across Australia’s universities, driven by international students.

Nothing happened and the international student rort was allowed to balloon to current epic proportions. In the past five years alone, international student numbers surged from just over 300,000 in 2013 to 500,000 as at end-2018:

In a similar vein, the concentration of international students at Australia’s universities has hit alarming levels:

Not surprisingly, then, an ABC investigation last year “uncovered an abundance of international students who describe struggling to communicate effectively in English, participate in class, or complete assignments adequately”. Academics, employers and education experts also informed the ABC that “English language standards are often too low or can be sidestepped via loopholes, and that students are often put in stressful classroom situations that can lead to cheating”.

Perhaps the best dissection of the problem came from economics lecturer at the University of Queensland – Dr Cameron Murray – who released the following damning indictment via Twitter:

A thread on my experience:

1. 90% of students in my economics masters classes are international.
2. Half of them struggle with basic English
3. When I ask in tutorials why they are doing the degree, half tell me that they “need more points for their residency visa” (1/n)
4. They tell me they choose economics because they can do the maths but don’t need to understand anything or write anything.
5. I always set written essays or reports. Students tell me that they know other students are using paid ‘essay writing’ services to pass my class (2/n)
6. If half the class can’t understand English it brings down standards. It must—unless I fail half the class.
7. Think about the incentives—a casual lecturer who costs $25,000 fails 50 students paying $250,000. Change lecturer next year or reduce intake to keep standards? (3/n)
8. It is frustrating when top international students from foreign governments/central banks come to your class, then sit next to rich Chinese (almost always Chinese) who can’t understand a word and are there to buy a visa (4/n)
9. The evidence shows the effect on standards is real.
None of this is a secret. That research is from 2011. Here’s an article from 2014:
10. Unfortunately, this reality conflicts with the widely believed myth that our immigration program brings in “high skilled” workers.
11. 350,000 international students paying $25,000+ per year to study is $9billion being pumped through our top dozen universities. (6/n)
12. Halving the number of international students would keep all the good students, boost standards for all, and remove the visa scams.
13. But this would remove $4.5billion per year of revenue to the universities. (7/n)
14. In sum, universities are being degraded so they can be used as a back-door immigration program, and no one at the senior levels of universities or major political parties want to change it.
15. It is nearly career suicide for younger academics to say anything about it (8/8)

I forgot to add that almost every student I failed or called out for plagiarism got second and third chances until they passed. After the first chance it is taken out of my hands to higher ups at the faculty…

There is nothing new in this thread. did a big investigation a few years ago. Nothing changed AFAIK. People are just used to the new reality.

More here:  and here:

In response to these widespread concerns, the Victorian Government in January called for a review of entry requirements into Australia’s universities, which was immediately supported by academics, who “inundated” Fairfax with stories of how they had been forced to lower standards and pass failing international students in order to maintain numbers.

Even the international student association has acknowledged the problems, also calling for greater regulation of overseas education/migration agents amid widespread cheating on English tests to gain access to Australian universities.

Therefore, with concerns around international students seemingly at its zenith, tonight’s Four Corners report threatens to blow the issue wide open.

Hopefully, the incoming federal government will use the Four Corners report as an opportunity to stare down the rent-seeking universities and order a warts-and-all Productivity Commission review of the costs and benefits of the international student trade.

It’s time to take stock before the issue mushrooms further out of control.

[email protected]

Unconventional Economist

Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.


    • Yes, and if it was prosecuted as such by putting some University Chancellors in arse-pounding prison, the behaviour would stop pretty damn quickly.

    • triageMEMBER

      Back in the Howard years the argument was successfully mounted that what do immigration officials know about immigration, that the unis are the best placed to know the numbers and types of international students that should be given visas, that professional organisations like the accountants and the engineers know more than public servants about work visas etc.

      It was a massive neoliberal victory, where the people making money from immigration were given control, totally ignoring the reality that it becomes all about money.

  1. About to be exposed? Come on, even the article states that it has been ‘exposed’ several times before. Add to it wage fraud where students on visas are being exploited. And what has happened? Employers still exploit students and universities still increase their enrolments. They supposedly have $30B in exports and seem to be nearly untouchable.
    Exposes have not achieved anything thus far. Only a royal commission into migration and/or a giant recession has any chance of making a difference.

    • reusachtigeMEMBER

      Because, let’s be honest, no one who is anyone that matters really cares about these issues. I know no one who does and I know the right sort of people. It’s all irrelevant and should be left to itself. There’s way too much profit destroying government interference in our lives as it is.

  2. Part of the reason students are struggling is because the departments and courses in which they are enrolled are deliberately under-funded. Less than 20% of the tuition fees paid by students is being used to pay for their actual education; the other 80% is being siphoned off by the Dean and the Vice Chancellor and used for completely unrelated purposes. If you pay $7.50 for a hamburger, but only $1.50 is spent on the actual hamburger, then it’s not going to be a very good hamburger.

  3. reusachtigeMEMBER

    I hope some sense is shown here by the government and they step in to cancel this sick show as it is clear that the ABC is becoming more racialist and drifting to the far right.

  4. Mining BoganMEMBER

    The cynic in me thinks this is deliberately timed to get lost in the election jibber-jabber then conveniently forgotten by swearing in of new gubmint time.

  5. Willy2MEMBER

    – Now I understand why the Liberals are so keen on reducing the budget for the ABC ………………

  6. What’s worse is the Commonwealth regulators refuse to implement a strategy to target this practice, instead they appease it.

  7. Democratic, Malaysia and Philippines both have high numbers of near-native English speakers. Our other immediate neighbours tend to have decent enough to get by English too.

    Perhaps we could refocus our efforts there?

    Oh, wait. They’re poor. Never mind.

    • When I went to uni about twenty years ago, students from Malaysia dominated the international cohort in my course, and were a big subset in my uni generally.
      Suspect absolute numbers have been steady while students from elsewhere boomed, which is to say, I suspect that an increased focus on Malaysia would not have achieved the desired boom in total numbers.

    • Perhaps we need to offer a Bachelor of Cash-In-Hand Ironing Services or maybe a Bachelor of Australian Aged Care Attendant to entice the Filipino students here?

  8. I’ll apologise in advance. In a bid to actually try to graduate, I was forced to carry, on many occasions, international students that clearly had no clue in group assignments.

    • Graduated over 20 years ago and the same crap was happening then but the academics were more overt in attempting to stamp it out. I’m guessing they were silenced.

      • I graduated earlier than that – basically right in the middle of the transition and you could tell a lot of lecturers were really angry.

    • what’s worse is that group assignments allow the University to cover up the extent of their poor admission practices in relation to overseas students’ deficient LLN skills.

      • Start of my course we had up to 80% weighting on the final exam with a hard pass required. By the end it was 40% final exam weighting and you had to score 40% or more on the exam…

      • if evidence of that was found by the regulator it would raise alot of questions, however nothing would be done because of the attitude of appeasement towards Universities from the relevant Federal regulator.

  9. This has been going since 2009 when I was last at University, probably even before that. Once, maybe twice a lecturer made the whole class re-sit an exam due to the foreign students absolutely failing basic English standards, they said “this is not good enough for the university”. They couldn’t just make the international students do it again or even fail them, so we all had to it again. Nice to see nothing changed and only got worse hahah the countries higher education system is a joke honestly, profits over results or outcomes, drop kick all those in charge.

  10. There’s always talk about ridiculous salaries for VCs, empire builders, but never is there any talk about driving efficiencies in the Universities. Anyone that has worked in a university will tell you about all the bloat that could be excised without any negative impact on service delivery. If we were to have an enquiry into universities, best we look at all the fat that could easily be trimmed.

    • even if the fat were trimmed, it wouldn’t mitigate the practice of recruiting overseas students who do not have the English language skills to successfully complete the course they’re enrolled in. Universities have reacted to this by dumbing down the content of their courses so as attrition rates are kept low and not come to the attention of the relevant Govt regulators.

      • But Universities wouldn’t need to rely on the vast numbers of International students to get the revenue right to offset bloated operating costs.

        If we didn’t need to chase such large numbers of international students, going for a small number of international students, then we could have higher entry standards for international students, because there would be enough high-level quality international students in the market to meet the higher standards.

        At the moment, we need such large numbers of international students that the only way we can meet such numbers is by letting anyone and everyone in, therefore the low entry standards.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        If we didn’t need to chase such large numbers of international students, going for a small number of international students, then we could have higher entry standards for international students, because there would be enough high-level quality international students in the market to meet the higher standards.

        Except there ain’t nobody comin’ here for the larnin’.

      • Because standards are so low, we don’t get the quality students. Improve standards, and we will get the higher quality students. Ditch the graduate and PR pathway, and have better quality, there will be still be international students that will come here.

        Build it and they will come.

      • Seems highly doubtful that we could attract the sort of numbers of internationals we have now based purely on quality. Britain has fewer international students we do, despite having some universities that we will never ever be able to compete with in terms of reputation. Similarly, although the USA has more international students than we do, unlike for us, the numbers are insignificant in comparison to the whole US higher ed sector, and the USA also has a number of universities (at least four) that we essentially can’t compete with on any level when it comes to international reputation.
        Assuming the goal is to have something like a 1:1 ratio of fee-paying internationals to government subsidised locals, the way we are doing it is the only possible way it could be achieved.

        Improved standards means a cut in numbers, pure and simple, and a shrinkage of reportable ‘education export profits’.

      • @Chase the overseas students who arrive here are non-genuine students. The majority of Universities outsource the delivery of their courses to third parties who are mostly dodgy registered training organisation’s.

    • The universities are being run like small African countries. The workers actually delivering the services have been trimmed to the bone, while the additional revenue is being used to create superfluous layers of top-level management. In other words, they don’t need to “trim” existing fat; they just need to stop creating new fat.

      • I agree with the essential service delivery being trimmed, but the higher level fat is getting out of control. The more senior level fluff (with their executive pay), the more money VCs will say they deserve. Empire builders, plain and simple.

  11. When a first world country turns education (the most important thing in a modern economy to give kids a fighting chance in life) into a cash cow for whatever reason, you know that country has become morally bankrupt. Well done australian elite. You have hit the bottom of the barrel. Thanks Howard you fvcking rodent for starting us on this path.

  12. Subscribers and lurkers might be keen to attend this event in Perth on Saturday promoted by Sustainable Australia

    Community Political Fairness Rally
    WHY: The voices from the sensible centre are NOT being heard. Sadly, political media attention is given to those who seek to divide and disempower the people.

    Australia needs better leaders.

    Is there another choice, another way to create a better, fairer and more Sustainable Australia?

    AIM: To bring people together to push for an inclusive, habitable and economic future for all Australians.

    WHERE: Steps of Parliament House, 4 Harvest Terrace, West Perth, WA 6005

    WHEN: Sat 11th May at 11 am

    • I was at Redcliffe on Sunday handing out flyers for SAP when a guy from the subcontinent walked past wearing an I trust Pauline shirt. Might be the same guy.

      • Perhaps. I questioned the candidate on his Facebook campaign page.

        I asked if would be getting his parents and or partner’s parents over on an Elderly Parent Visa – his was reply was ‘it’s his parent call’. I replied saying, actually, its your call too given you would need to endorse their visa.

        I asked, given he is concerned with congestion and hospital wait times, if he supported the scrapping of Elderly Parent Visas. He said he supported ‘zero net immigration’. I replied saying zero net immigration, given those that leave the counyty, can still mean there is immigration. Given this, would Elderly Parent Visas be included in these immigration numbers or would he call for a scrapping of such visas. He said he would ‘cut across the board’. So I asked, so you support a cut, but not a abolition of Elderly Parent Visas, to which his lackey fellow candidate spoke on his behalf, declared I was a ‘fake profile’ and simply trolling. I responded that the question was important, given Nikhil is asking for a reduction in immigration, but seems to still support Elderly Parent Visas (either in policy form, or by sponsoring his or his partner’s parents visas), despite his concern about congestion and hospital issues. My messages were then deleted by Nikhil.

        I must add, Nikhil is running in an electorate that has a high sub-continental area, who probably want a reduction in overall immigration, but still want to get the rest of their family here first (particularly aging parents).

        What a con.

  13. I’m thinking this is something Mark Latham could get involved in in NSW. The State Governments control the universities don’t they? He could leverage his vote in the upper house to capping foreign student numbers at NSW universities. Would be a big win for the State.