Fair go for international students
By Professor Bruce Robinson
9 April 2009
The recent study by Access Economics detailing the vital importance of international students to the viability of tertiary institutions and the broader economy, confirms what anyone working in this country's education institutions knows well.
That is, international students make an enormous contribution.
Their fees are an essential source of revenue, without which we could not provide the quality and range of courses and programs we now offer. This is particularly so this year, as we strive to maintain programs when other sources of revenue have contracted.
Their contribution, though, is far greater than just financial. International students add a welcome diversity to our education institutions, and enrich the learning experience of Australian students.
The relationships forged between local and international students also form the basis of international connections that are likely to serve this country's interests well in the future.
That a significant number of our international medical students choose to remain in Australia once they have completed their studies, provides a very welcome addition to the country's overstretched health workforce.
In the Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney, we are delighted to have hundreds of new international students enrol each year. In our graduate medical course, 53 new international students commenced their studies this year and we have 180 international students over the four years of our program. In addition, we have nearly 350 international students enrolled in postgraduate research programs or postgraduate courses, in areas as diverse as public health, clinical epidemiology, surgery, ophthalmology and pain management.
Our students come from around the world. This year, we have people commencing their medical studies at the University of Sydney from Canada, the United States, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Timor L'Este and Mauritius. In our public health courses, we have students from an even broader community including India, China and Vietnam.
The problem we face, though, is that as a direct result of conditions imposed on us by both Federal and State Governments, we are not able to provide our international students with the same education and training opportunities as we offer to our local students. The result is that NSW is a less attractive destination for international medical students.
It is particularly a problem for our international medical students, who despite the steep fees they pay, are relegated to secondary status.
International medical students in NSW currently face the prospect of completing their medical studies but then being unable to secure supervised internships in NSW public hospitals. Internship is a vital component in medical training and without completing an internship, young graduates cannot be registered to practice medicine.
The recent increase in medical student numbers has increased the demand for supervised hospital internships. The NSW Government has responded by guaranteeing that all local students will be able to secure an intern placement in NSW public hospitals.
It will not extend such a guarantee, however, to our international students.
They rank not just below local medical students who have completed their medical studies in NSW universities, but behind Australian medical students who have completed their training outside NSW, and behind doctors who have done their training internationally and are seeking registration to practice in Australia.
This year, all graduating international medical students have secured internships in NSW hospitals. For those completing their studies this year, though, we are not able to reassure them that they will be offered training places in hospitals.
This places an extraordinary additional stress on them. International students in every year of their medical studies are rightly expressing deep concerns about their future prospects, and the situation is detracting from their experience of studying here.
Despite approaches from all NSW Medical School Deans, the NSW Government has refused to budge on this issue.
Although securing an internship is the most pressing issue for our international students, it is not the only area of discrimination.
We are prevented from allowing them equal access to training in our rural clinical schools. The majority of our local students have the opportunity to undertake some of their medical training in one of our rural clinical schools, in country towns including Dubbo, Orange, Broken Hill and Lismore. The education experience is very valuable, but we are tightly restricted in offering the opportunity to international students.
That international students are not eligible for travel concessions is an ongoing point of contention that affects students well beyond this Medical School.
Such restrictions fly in the face of recent statements by the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Julia Gillard, which welcome and recognise the importance of international education.
Our goal in this Medical School is to provide all our international medical and postgraduate students with a high quality education, which positions them well for their future careers, and reflects well on our education institutions and the country.
At the moment, we are not able to do that. In a competitive international education market, this will almost certainly impact on our - and other Medical Schools' - ability to attract international students. Our own finances, and eventually the education provided for our local students, stand to be affected.
The solution, though, is quite simple and fortunately does not require any great change. We simply would like to be able to offer our international students the same education and training opportunities as we provide for our local students. A fair go.