Monday, May 25, 2020

How universities came to rely on international students

This essay is based on an episode of the University of Technology Sydney podcast series “The New Social Contract”. The audio series examines how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through this global pandemic.

It’s sad times for public universities as they fight for their survival. Most are reeling from a severe financial hit due to the loss of international students.
Universities are estimated to lose around A$3-4.6 billion in revenue from international student fees in 2020 alone, and more in 2021.
The government has locked universities out of JobKeeper - its COVID-19 wage subsidy scheme - despite the fact the sector is projected to lose around 21,000 jobs, of which 7,000 are estimated to be research-related.
International onshore student revenue was, as a share of all universities’ revenue, 26.2% on average in 2018, just shy of A$9 billion. For some universities, the dependency on international students is even greater, at around 30-40%.
Many in the government criticise universities for relying so heavily on international students for revenue. For instance,  Senator James Paterson recently told the Senate:
Over the last few decades our universities have bet big on the international-student dollar. Their institutions have boomed from what has been a very lucrative business, but they have become badly overexposed […] Universities argue they have pursued this market by necessity. They argue insufficient government funding pushed them down this path. It’s a convenient story that attempts to absolve universities of responsibility for the decisions they have made, and it is a false one.
But such views are false. And they ignore the history of international students from Asia studying in our universities.

A history of international education

In 1923, Sydney University accepted its first Chinese overseas student, N.Y. Shah from Wuhan, who was studying to become a teacher back in China.
From the 1950s, children of Chinese diaspora parents from countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong began to arrive in Australia to study.
This rarely mentioned cohort of private overseas students studied alongside students supported by the well-known Colombo Plan - an intergovernmental effort to strengthen economic and social development of member countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
In fact, so prominent was the Colombo Plan’s efforts in bringing students to study in Australia, it is still incorrectly believed to be the first major source of overseas students.
Historian Lyndon Megarrity estimates the Colombo Plan brought less than one-fifth of overseas students to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. The vast majority came as private overseas students.
They went to Australian schools, sat for university matriculation and for those who passed, proceeded to university either funded by the generous Commonwealth scholarship scheme or by paying substantially subsidised university fees, just like Australian citizens.
By 1966, archival research shows private overseas students constituted 8.9% of full-time university enrolments and their numbers were growing. Immigration restrictions were also loosened to mean citizenship was available to private overseas students who had lived in Australia for at least five years.
Most met the conditions after attending two years of high school and the three year minimum for a degree.
While some stayed, of those I interviewed for a UNSW survey of overseas students who studied at the university in the 1950s and 1960s, it seems most returned to their home countries where an Australian university degree promised excellent career prospects.
There was obviously something about Australian education and society that appealed to our Asian neighbours, and pulled them to Australia where they lived for five years and more.

An unofficial government policy

In 1990 the Australian government introduced full fees for all international students. John Dawkins, the then Minister for Employment, Education and Training, saw an opportunity to establish university education as an export industry.
The year 1990 is significant because the Australian government was in the process of implementing the Dawkins reforms which reorganised the once diversified public higher education sector into a single national system.
The aim of the Dawkins reforms was to encourage more Australian school leavers to attend university and, on graduation, become part of a highly-skilled and educated national workforce.
To help fund this vastly expanded system and rein in costs, the government introduced HECS. Students could postpone subsidised and interest-free fees until their salary reached a certain level when they would repay the loan through the taxation system.
International student fees at this stage were not a significant source of university income. But they became so from the early 2000s after a decade of reduced government funding and a significant expansion of local student numbers.
Since government funding no longer covered the full costs of expensive research or the strong growth in domestic students, universities had to find funds from elsewhere.
It can be said that international student fees have become an unofficial part of the funding policy of consecutive federal governments.
Government actions and inactions that led to such a reliance on international fee income have created a system that challenges a belief many of us hold dear - public universities should be able to draw on public funds for their operations.
Where in 1989 universities derived more than 80% of their operating costs from the public purse, now it is estimated to be less than 40% - a figure well below the OECD average for public investment in tertiary education.

Where to from here

Since the 2000s, the shortfall has been largely made up by international student fees which have enabled universities to punch above their weight. On a population parity basis we have more universities  in the world’s top 500 (by some metrics) than Canada, the United Kingdom and United States.
And 2018 figures show we have some of the highest participation rates of school leavers in the world, at least 30% higher than is the case in the United Kingdom.
International student revenue funds a large proportion of university research. Shutterstock
Our universities also contribute enormously to national research and development - international student fees help sustain this. The Australian Bureau of Statistics confirmed this week more than half of the A$12 billion universities invest in research each year comes from a pool of funds that relies on international student fees.
International students, however, should not simply be measured by the fees they pay. Evidence shows while here, students contribute to the well-being of Australians by fuelling economic growth and prosperity that provides jobs for Australians.
University doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows are a large component of Australia’s research and development workforce. International students make up 37% of this vital group, working on important projects like breeding drought resilient crops, developing cures for diseases like COVID-19, and world-leading efficient solar and plastic recycling technology.
Some international students remain in Australia as our largest single source of skilled migrants. Others return to their home country to become leaders in business, politics and cultural industries with a respect and appreciation of Australian culture. We should nurture this good will, not trash it.

The next article linked to the podcast will look at universities and the climate.
Context of the Crisis was made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology, Sydney - an audio production house combining academic research and audio storytelling.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The PhD: How to Make Working From Home Work

Working from home or hardly working? Are you struggling to make it work while using the same space and the same screen for work, leisure, entertainment and socialising? Merle shares her tips on how to get the best out of this situation and create a good, productive mindset..
Us poor PhD students, like many others, have been at home for a while now. This is now where we sleep, eat, live and now also work. For some this is business as usual. They are comfortable with this structure, and maybe actively seek it out, and prefer it to working from anywhere else. If that’s your case, lucky for you!
However, there are also quite a few people who aren’t used to working from home, or are, and don’t really like it. They might dislike it because it doesn’t fit their flow. Or because they constantly get distracted and don’t find it remotely productive. If you want some help with working from home, this article is for you.
The first aspect we are going to look at is space. This is the most constrained aspect. Your working space is now also your kitchen, living room, bedroom and Netflix area. Not good.
Now what can you do? It’s not helpful to work from your bed (unless that’s where you are most productive?). Our mind goes to either “sleep” or “chill” mode. Because that’s what most people do in their bed. This is associative reasoning, and really common. The fact that you get hungry if you’re working in the kitchen is caused by this as well.
So what can you do?
Create a space in your home that is just for work. If you can, create an impromptu office. If you don’t have that much space just lying about, create a micro-environment. This can be something as a specific side of the table and a chair. Or a specific corner of a room. You only sit there to work, and don’t do anything else there. Once you sit down there, you work. If you’re not sitting down there, you’re not working. Simple as that. This process lies at the foundation of classical conditioning, for my psychologists over here.
If it’s absolutely impossible for you to create any form of separate space, just put on a hat. Once you’re wearing that hat, it’s work time. Don’t laugh at me, then I won’t laugh at you. It’s the power of association.
Also, no one is going to see you with that hat on anyway.
When it comes to doing a PhD, working hours are flexible anyway. But now, with offices shut down and all meetings being online, possibly in different time zones, the average schedule has truly gone to sh*t.
This lack of structure isn’t ideal for those who thrive whilst having a structure. The solution? Making the world’s most flexible planning. Instead of planning everything by the hour, just set targets for the day. In this way, if you get up at 10 am instead of 8 am, you don’t have to feel guilty or bully yourself for “ruining” your planning. Because you haven’t! There’s still plenty of time to meet your targets.
What you’ll see from this type of schedule is that you’ll fall into your natural routine. For me, this is to start work at 11 am and work till 7 pm.
If your working schedule doesn’t have these spontaneous interventions and time zone issues, do feel free to plan your day by the hour. It can be really helpful!
If you want more info on managing your time during the PhD, read this article here.
DistractionIf a clearly defined space, your natural working hours and the power of association aren’t working, something else is going on. The most likely perpetrator? Distraction.
Distraction can come in a lot of shapes, but ironically, during these times, they’re all coming from the same source. Distractions now mainly manifest in the online environment, with having to use an online platform to call friends/family, have social events, but also to relax on your own with Netflix, YouTube and other culprits.
The “lucky” thing here is that with this change in distractions, all of them can be shut down in the same way: no internet.
Once you disable internet on your laptop, computer and phone (maybe not even have your phone near you, or on), most distractions during COVID-19 are shut out. This means that you should be able to code, write or read (if you’re using Google Scholar or similar, download the papers first, then read in PDF mode).
It seems rather drastic, but there is a phenomenon called switching costs, which refer to the amount of time that is lost when getting distracted from your work and having to dive back into it. This adds up. Switch your internet off!
If you have any tips on how to work from home, tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.
by Merle
Merle van den Akker is a PhD student with the Behavioural Science Group at WBS, looking into the effect of contactless payments on how me manage our finances. She tweets at @MoneyMindMerle.