Better regulation the key to improving international students' welfare

5 September 2013

Regulating International Students' Wellbeing
Government regulations treat International students mostly as long-term 'customers' in Australia and New Zealand, argues lead author Associate Professor Gaby Ramia.

Access to Medicare and public transport concessions on the same basis as local students are just two ways the Australian government could improve the welfare of international students, according to a new book co-authored by a University of Sydney academic.

Regulating International Students' Wellbeing (Policy Press), by lead author Associate Professor Gaby Ramia from the Graduate School of Government and co-authors Simon Marginson and Erlendawati Sawir, presents a comprehensive comparison of how Australian policy fares internationally in protecting student welfare.

The authors analysed global policies and legislative frameworks, and conducted in-depth interviews with key decision-makers, to assess Australia's performance in key areas, including access to national health systems, student concession discounts, and pathways to independent appeals bodies for dispute resolutions against education providers.

Despite education ranking as Australia's fourth - and only non-mining related - top export, an international comparison reveals several shortcomings in regulating the industry, says Associate Professor Ramia.

"Governments, like the rest of us, pay scant attention to how students actually live their lives," he says.

"International students are mostly treated as long-term 'customers' in Australia and New Zealand, and not offered any form of 'social citizenship', as they say in social policy.

"No formal welfare related schemes apply to them, though a significant proportion of internationals work part-time and pay tax on the same basis as locals if they do work."

Associate Professor Ramia points to the differences between full-fee international education systems in English-speaking countries and those of several European countries, where overseas students are afforded social rights at a similar level to local students, to suggest discrepancies in national priorities.

"In Australia and New Zealand the health system is off bounds but private health insurance is compulsory in Australia. Travel concessions are not offered to most internationals, though NSW has recently introduced limited concessions which are effectively not even close to the discounts local students enjoy," he says.

"There are many regulations which cover the wellbeing of international students, but in both Australia and New Zealand a similar proportion of students simply do not know of the measures which governments put in place to address questions of their welfare outside the classroom and campus environments."

Drawing on a previous quantitative study of international student experiences, Associate Professor Ramia and his colleagues found that 143 out of 200 students interviewed agreed that better backup systems ought to be available to support their studies in Australia.

Further, the majority (63 per cent) of international students in Australia and New Zealand were unaware of the legislative frameworks in place across both countries to protect their wellbeing.

"One of the keys to better policy is the simple regulatory principle of effective information flow. We have nothing to fear if we provide fuller and more frank information about social risks. This is needed no matter which country students live in."

Gaby Ramia is associate professor in the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney, and lead author (with Simon Marginson and Erlenawati Sawir) of Regulating International Students' Wellbeing (Policy Press, UK, 2013).

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