The re-elected Morrison government is poised to tighten rules around English language standards for international students and improve protections around their mental health and wellbeing.
In response to growing scrutiny of the international education boom at Australian universities, Education Minister Dan Tehan has directed his department to work on a series of proposals to ensure standards aren’t suffering and that students are being properly cared for.
The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the independent regulator of universities, recommended to Mr Tehan in March that stricter English language standards be applied to academic foundation courses that provide foreign students with a pathway into enrolment at universities.
From 2018, the government toughened requirements for intensive English language courses that enable direct entry into universities and TEQSA has now suggested “similar” provisions should apply to the standards for the foundation courses. The standards are currently being reviewed.
Responding to a request from Mr Tehan for recommendations on further strengthening standards, the regulator also advised that monitoring of universities’ compliance could be sharpened, including by forcing them to “record, in detail, the basis on which a student met the required English language entry standard”.
Mr Tehan is said to be supportive of the changes and the Department of Education is now developing advice for him on how they would operate.
While TEQSA chief executive Anthony McClaran has suggested the improvements, he has stated that current rules are largely “adequate” and there is “little evidence to suggest that there is systemic failure” of compliance with language standards.
Concerns around the wellbeing of international students have also spiked following the suicide of Chinese student Zhikai Liu. A coroner’s report into the death made multiple recommendations that Mr Tehan has backed.
The report recommended the federal government work on strategies to provide mental health support for vulnerable students. Mr Tehan agreed with the recommendation and said it was relevant on a national level despite the coroner’s findings being specific to Victoria.
“I have tasked my department with undertaking a national consultation on international student mental health and wellbeing in April and May 2019,” he wrote in response to the coroner’s findings.
The coroner also recommended examination of critical incident reports to inform suicide prevention among international students. Mr Tehan agreed in principle and has asked the department to investigate but warned of potential limitations because of privacy laws.
The minister responded with similarly qualified support for the coroner’s third recommendation, which called for improved reporting requirements in the event of a suicide.
Australia has experienced explosive growth in international education over recent years – 14 per cent in 2018 – and it is now the nation’s third-largest export. In 2018, about 400,000 foreign students were enrolled in Australian universities, pumping $34 billion into the economy.
The boom has led to concerns about foreign students being treated as cash cows, the impact on teaching standards, and potential complications stemming from the heavy reliance on Chinese students.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said English language standards among international students remained high.
She said the sector would continue to work closely with the government and regulator to “maintain Australia’s high standards and to safeguard the quality of the experience for all of our students”.
Ms Jackson also urged students dealing with mental health issues to make use of the available support at their institutions.
Ittima Cherastidtham, a higher education fellow at the Grattan Institute, said better data collection on language testing was a welcome initiative and there was evidence of students being admitted without adequate language skills.
“There is growing public concern about the international student market. More transparency on how a university admits international students is a good first step to ameliorate it,” she said.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald