Proof international students are dumbing down universities


I attended university in the mid-to-late 1990s, back when a degree was not a commodity to be sold for profit and the international student trade was largely non-existent.

Over the four years that I undertook my honours degree in Commerce, I never once performed a group assignment. My assignments were my sole responsibility and the quality of my work determined by mark.

Fast forward 20 years and the structure of university courses has shifted 180-degrees. Universities are now bonafide businesses and degree factories, whose business models rely on a growing influx of full fee-paying international students in order to maximise revenue.

Nearly all of these international students come from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB), primarily China, India and Nepal, as illustrated in the next chart:


In order to ensure that these NESB students pass their courses, universities have restructured teaching and implemented group assessments that pair local students with international students. And this has predictably resulted in domestic students doing most of the work and effectively cross-subsidising the marks of international students.

Meshel Laurie – host of the Australian True Crime Podcast – explained the process yesterday in Fairfax:


It’s a neat trick: group assessment (with groups allocated by instructors) in courses overloaded with full-fee-paying, non-English speaking students means the English speakers bear the burden of catching the others up, translating the course content for them and helping them pass.

I’m enrolled in the course myself by the way…. I’m five weeks into a Masters in Media and I’ve spent time in every class assisting non-English speaking students to comprehend the lesson and complete the set task…

The workload is overwhelming enough without having to piggyback someone else through it too. Just five weeks in I’m feeling the drain… The university assessment process is heavily weighted towards group activities…

“Group Assessment work enables the students to develop communication, cooperation and teamwork skills,” says a 2019 publication from my university titled “Assessment Processes”. The bloody cheek of it. It goes on, “Group assessment work is inclusive and accessible: it enables full participation by students from diverse backgrounds.” Mmm hmmm. It’s a pity the classes don’t.

“Group assessment reflects collaborative work in the relevant industry or profession.” Nope. I’ve never been on a film or television set where the crew is divided into two camps speaking different languages…

Separately, University of Melbourne Associate Professor, Allan Patience, claims that more needs to be done to ensure that domestic students mix with international students:

University of Melbourne Associate Professor Allan Patience… said universities had failed at overcoming gaps between domestic and international students.

“We really need at first year level a whole lot of innovative curricula to introduce these two groups of students to each other,” Dr Patience said.

Language, racism and social barriers all prompt many international students to throw themselves into their studies, thus denying them opportunities to mix with Australian students, Dr Patience said.


By “innovative curricula” does Dr Patience mean more group assignments?

Let’s be real for a moment. Universities should exist first and foremost to educate Australians. And domestic students should not be forced to bend over backwards to ensure international students pass, and effectively be turned into unpaid tutors.

If universities wish to run international student businesses, they should have separate schools that cater to these students and their special needs instead of changing everything to cater for students who aren’t fluent in English.


Australians wouldn’t go study in China without speaking mandarin. Nor should international students study in Australia without being fluent in English.

About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.