WILL education agents and students resort to anything for a chance to study in Australia? Echo Chen offers a nuanced perspective on recruitment practices overseas and the dangers of negatively stereotyping international students.
The recruitment practices of Australian universities and the offshore education agents they rely on has been the subject of intense scrutiny in an episode of the ABC’S Four Corners program that went to air on April 20.
But students and the education agent caught up in the maelstrom say the Australian public broadcaster has failed to present a fair and balanced view of the higher education sector.
While the pressures on both sides are real – with universities’ unhealthy reliance on international student enrolments for funding, and the language and cultural barriers international students must overcome to succeed in the classroom – it’s not the only story.
Australia’s international student peak body CISA has cautioned against the negative stereotyping of international students.
“A few bad apples and a small handful of concerned academics should not define the general reputation of international students,” says CISA president Thomson Ch’ng.
“There are students who work genuinely hard by exercising due diligence in their studies so as to make the most of a huge financial investment and there are certainly full-time academics who can attest to the quality and success of international students who have gone on to demonstrate capability in the workplace.”
Credibility of offshore education agents
China’s leading education agent EduGlobal, which was featured in the ‘Degrees of Deception’ episode, has hit out against the Australian broadcaster’s claims over corrupt conduct.
The footage, which was filmed undercover, shows an ABC journalist speaking to an EduGlobal employee, who recommended her client take a university’s internal English test.
The Chinese education agent is standing by its employee, and says the advice given was in line with the company’s professional code of conduct.
Australian universities can set their own cut-off requirements for English proficiency tests, as well as offer alternative internal tests, and prospective students often accompanied by their parents, meet with EduGlobal advisors to discuss a pathway most suited for them.
The company says the session lasted 20 minutes, but only two edited sentences were picked to air.
In an official statement to Meld, EduGlobal says it has a “comprehensive assurance system to constantly train, remind and monitor its staff and operation in compliance with all relevant laws and regulations of both China and Australia.”
The company says it has conducted its own internal investigation, and has found “neither ‘corrupt’ nor ‘dodgy’ conduct” arising from the program’s footage, or any fraudulent practice in its entire 23 years of operation.
As a testament to its integrity, EduGlobal points to a similar program in China which shone the spotlight on education agents and the use of fraudulent documents in 2012.
“Among all the agents investigated, EduGlobal bluntly refused to forge any application materials,” the company says.
EduGlobal says it is working closely with all stakeholders across the industry to “protect and safeguard the hard-fought achievements and good will of Australia’s international education, which is not only bringing in export income to the economy, but also bringing positive changes to the life of so many young people from almost every country in the world”.
(You can read EduGlobal’s full statement here.)
English language courses not the soft option
Current and prospective international students have also spoken out about their experiences.
Paul (not his real name) from China, is in the process of applying for a postgraduate degree in Australia. A professional who has been in the workforce for the past five years, Paul says he is relying on an agent to help with his university and visa applications. It’s an arduous process with numerous forms to fill and documents to submit.
“Doing that alone is too tiring and time-consuming for people working full-time like me,” says Paul.
“I want to save some time to study English, so that I can go to Australia sooner and reunite with my girlfriend there.”
The course he is applying for requires an IELTS score of 6.5. He says his agent recommended taking RMIT University’s internal English test on hearing his concerns about his English proficiency.
“I told the adviser, ‘I may have to take the IELTS exam more than once to get 6.5, because I haven’t studied English since I graduated years ago.’ She suggested taking RMIT’s internal test instead of IELTS.”
The internal test is an entrance examination that leads to English language courses offered by RMIT English Worldwide, the university’s English language training arm.
Based on the internal test results or previous IELTS scores, students can enrol in various ten-week language courses from “elementary” to “advanced plus” levels. Successful completion of the “advanced plus” level course can then earn a direct entry into RMIT without other formal tests.
“If I get a reasonable mark from the internal test, I can go to Melbourne within months and attend the language school,” says Paul. He thinks it is a better choice than waiting in China until he manages to achieve an IELTS score of 6.5.
“My biggest wish, after all, is to arrive in Australia sooner…the internal test will allow me to do so and to study English in Australia,” he says.
Ongoing support for international students needed
Hilda (not her real name), a current postgraduate student at RMIT, took the “advanced plus” course at the university’s language school after falling half a mark short on her IELTS.
She received a conditional offer which required her to either achieve the requisite IELTS score, or take the language course offered at RMIT.
She says the language course was “quite formal”, and students needed to take weekly assignments and final exams seriously in order to pass and be accepted into the university.
Like Paul, Hilda opted for the language course because she saw it as an opportunity to get better acquainted with Australia’s teaching and learning environment – an experience IELTS or TOEFL exams would not be able to offer.
“We learnt essay writing and had tutorial discussions. So it has a focus on university academic skills as well,” she says.
She does however raise another pertinent point. Is a language course alone enough to prepare students for university life?
She thinks not.
While students may be better prepared for life in Australia by the time they finish their language course, it’s a big jump when it comes to academia.
“I don’t think this kind of language course can improve your English to a level as high as what everyday study in university actually expects…in university, the English materials are more complex and based in particular study fields, while the language course teaches simpler English skills,” she says.
And it’s not just about the quality of the language course on offer. Hilda is realistic about what students can accomplish in a short time, and believes some students just have a better knack for language than others.
“It really depends on individual cases. I have classmates who entered the university with IELTS scores of 6.5 or 7, but now still find it hard to understand the lectures,” she says.