Stop scapegoating international students: an open letter from NTEU members

Open letter from NTEU members regarding the Four Corners episode ‘Cash Cows’


As university workers and National Tertiary Education Union members, we write to express our concern about Four Corners’ pre-election documentary, ‘Cash Cows’, for its racist portrayal of international students.

Four Corners claims that Australia’s higher education system is being undermined by a growing reliance on foreign fee-paying students and scapegoats international students for the failures of government to fund tertiary education properly. The truth is that staff and students are suffering in universities, not because of international students but six years of brutal funding cuts from the Liberal government. In 2017 the Liberals slashed $2.1 billion from university funding and successive rounds of cuts have followed. In December of last year the Coalition moved to slash $328.5 million in research funding. The real threat to the quality and integrity of the higher education system is the Liberals.

The anti-immigrant politics in the episode are explicit. The program opens with a soundbite from ‘former immigration official’ Andrew Dunstan and goes downhill from there. One student is even sympathetically interviewed regarding his claim to have dropped out of his course after he was placed in a group with students who were of Indian background and spoke to one another in a language other than English. The program then attacks universities for accepting international students who do not meet ‘minimum English requirements’. Universities could easily provide these students with free and accessible English tutoring and reduce workloads for staff who are too overworked to give students the support they need.

Arguing that universities should restrict students based on their level of English proficiency continues a long history in Australia of racial exclusion under the guise of policing ‘language’.

It is telling that the university that Four Corners focused on was Murdoch, the same university that in 2017 launched an unprecedented attack on workers rights by terminating their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. If there is a lowering of academic standards at Murdoch and issues with student welfare, then it is the harsh agenda of cuts and sackings run by their stridently anti-union management that is to blame, not international students.

Many of the academics interviewed in the episode expressed concern for the wellbeing of international students and an opposition to the profit motives of university management. But the documentary’s focus is not on the neoliberal university but instead on demonising international students as sneaky ‘backdoor’ migrants.

Against the backdrop of rising Islamophobia and anti-Chinese racism, this documentary draws explicitly on racist stereotypes, and feeds into a climate of xenophobia. Students of colour are likely to feel less welcome and less safe on university campuses as a result of the documentary, whether they are international students or not.

The NTEU have seized on this program as evidence of the sector ‘selling its soul’ – the sector is certainly run like a business, but this is not the fault of international students. We, the undersigned NTEU members, argue that the problem is that universities have been set up to run like profit maximising corporations selling education as a product. In this context, aligning ourselves with the pursuit of academic ‘standards’ just means aligning ourselves with university managements in their branding efforts.

Instead of blaming international students for inadequate funding, and the failings of a corporatised education system, we need a free fully government funded education system for all students. The recent tweet from the national office in support of international students and opposing racism was very welcome. However, it is disappointing that the follow-up statement from the national office called for further ‘vetting’ of International students All students should be welcome in universities and given the support they need to learn. For those students who are new to the English language, free and accessible services should be provided to assist them. International students are not the problem. Funding cuts, overwork and the vicious anti-union and anti-worker agenda of universities like Murdoch are the problem.

We urge the NTEU to completely disassociate itself from this documentary by ceasing to promote it, and to take the next step by releasing a statement condemning the program altogether for its racist narrative that international students are undermining the quality of universities.

NTEU members can add their names in the comments below to sign the statement.



Dr Max Kaiser, University of Melbourne

Shan Windscript, NTEU delegate, University of Melbourne

Geraldine Fela, NTEU casuals activist, University of Melbourne

Jimmy Yan, University of Melbourne

Amy Thomas, UTS NTEU Casual representative, NTEU National Casuals Committee

Bernard Keo, Monash University

Ainslee Meredith, University of Melbourne

Dr Francis Markham, Australian National University

Dr Evan Smith, Flinders University

Dr Ada Chan, University of Melbourne

Dr Anja Kanngieser, University of Wollongong

Sofie Onorato, University of Melbourne

Dr. Lauren Bliss, University of Melbourne

Dr Jordy Silverstein, University of Melbourne

Dr Joshua Pocius, University of Melbourne

Anastasia Kanjere, La Trobe University

Dr. Hayley Singer, University of Melbourne

Rosie Joy Barron, University of Melbourne Branch Committee member

Dr. Jay Daniel Thompson, University of Melbourne and Victoria University

Christopher O’Neill, NTEU delegate, University of Melbourne

Connor Jolley, RMIT University

Dr Jon Piccini, Australian Catholic University

Thao Phan, Deakin University

Abbie Trott, University of Melbourne and University of Queensland

Samantha Mannix, University of Melbourne

Claire Akhbari, Ability English and the University of Melbourne

Dr Benjamin Cooke, RMIT University

Bonita Cabiles, University of Melbourne

Eric Stacey, Deakin University

Jessica Marian, NTEU delegate, University of Melbourne

Chong Yoong Wai, Postgrad member, University of Melbourne

Jason Wong, Postgrad member, University of Melbourne

Miro Sandev, NTEU casuals activist, University of Sydney

James Harding, Sydney Uni NTEU Casual representative, NTEU National Casuals Committee

Anna Hush, University of New South Wales

Marijke Hoving, University of Sydney

Carol Que, University of Melbourne

Melissa Laing, PhD Candidate/Sessional Academic, RMIT University

Natalie Osborne, Lecturer, Griffith University

Jessica Ison, La Trobe University

Joshua Ford, University of Sydney

Caitlin Doyle-Markwick, University of Sydney

Dr Natalie Hendry, Deakin University

Annette Herrera, UniMelb NTEU Casual representative, NTEU National Casuals Committee

Rachael Hamed, University of Sydney

Kirk Graham, University of Queensland

Melanie Lazarow, NTEU life member

A/Prof Sara C. Motta, University of Newcastle

Dr Hannah McCann, Lecturer in Cultural Studies, University of Melbourne

Dr Briony Towers, RMIT University

Dr Lauren Pikó, University of Melbourne

Rula Paterson, Murrup Barak, University of Melbourne

Ruby Wawn, University of Technology Sydney

Barrie Shannon, University of Newcastle

Gemma Killen, Australian National University

Dr Guy Gillor, University of Melbourne

Dr Timothy Laurie, University of Technology Sydney

Alana West, University of Technology Sydney

Sophia Davidson Gluyas, University of Sydney

Vivian Honan, University of Sydney

Padraic Gibson, Jumbunna Institute, University of Technology Sydney

Fan Yang, Deakin University

Jacqueline Storey, University of Melbourne

Dr Effie Karageorgos, The University of Melbourne.

Freya Newman, Research Assistant, University of Technology Sydney

Natalie Lowden, University of Sydney

Elizabeth Humphrys, University of Technology Sydney

James Newbold, University of Sydney

Grace Torcasio, University of Melbourne

Hannah Forsyth, Australian Catholic University

Dr Rhiannon Bandiera, Flinders University

Clare O’Hanlon, La Trobe University

Dr Margaret Mayhew, La Trobe University & University of Melbourne

William Scates Frances, Australian National University

Dr Kumuda Simpson, Lecturer in International Relations, La Trobe University

Dr Mia Martin Hobbs, University of Melbourne

Polly Bennett, RMIT University and Victoria University

Dr Marcus Banks, RMIT University & University of Melbourne

Cheri Mays, Macquarie University

Kent Getsinger, NTEU Delegate, University of Adelaide

Dr Julia Dehm, La Trobe University

Dr Ntina Tzouvala University of Melbourne

Dr Katherine Firth, Lecturer and Academic Coordinator, La Trobe University

Nick Robinson, NTEU Delegate, University of Melbourne

Rosie Isaac, Monash University

Dr. Catherine Frieman, Australian National University

Dr. Bhuva Narayan, University of Technology Sydney

Ms Xi Chen, University of Sydney

Yusen Zhang, University of Technology Sydney

Andrew Pippos, University of Technology Sydney

Kate Davison, University of Melbourne

Michael Pearson, Australian Catholic University.

Dr Sarah Gregson NTEU Branch President UNSW

Matt Mason, School of Nursing, Midwifery & Paramedicine, USC

Dr Michael Grewcock, Faculty of Law, UNSW Sydney

Sophie Rudolph, University of Melbourne Branch Committee member

A/Prof Anthony J. Langlois, College of Business, Government & Law, Flinders University

Xinyi Duan, University of Sydney

Dr Mary Tomsic, University of Melbourne

Therese Apolonio, University of Technology Sydney

Lucy Fiske, University of Technology Sydney

Dr Natasha Story, University of Melbourne

Dr Ben Silverstein, Australian National University

Emma Whatman, Deakin University

Dr Emmett Stinson, Deakin University

Frank Candiloro, RMIT University

Gong Chen, Sydney University

Dr Anthea Vogl, University of Technology Sydney

Dr Kim Barbour, The University of Adelaide

Anton Donohoe-Marques, University of Melbourne

Francesco Ricatti, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University

Dr Catherine Ayres, Australian National University

Professor Jim Ife, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Western Sydney University

Dr Liz Dean, Sociology Program, The University of Melbourne

Phil Chilton, Casual Academic, School of Media, Creative Arts & Social inquiry, Curtin University

Dr Sukhmani Khorana, University of Wollongong

Emma Lian, University of Sydney

Vickie Zhang, School of Geography, The University of Melbourne

Matilda Fay, University of Technology Sydney

Lu Lin, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

Dr Melinda Harvey, Monash University

Kate Hutchinson, University of Sydney

Luís Bogliolo, University of Melbourne

Alex Ligthart-Smith, University of Melbourne

Charlie Sofo, Monash University

Sally Olds, University of Melbourne

Kay Yidi Yan, University of Sydney

Dr Erin O’Donnell, Melbourne Law School, The University of Melbourne

Dr Kalissa Alexeyeff, University of Melbourne

Kelton Muir de Moore, University of Sydney

Giles Fielke, University of Melbourne / Monash University

Benjamin McElduff, Australian Catholic University

Robbie Haddad, Deakin University

Dr Sara Dehm, University of Technology Sydney

Kelly Palmer, NTEU delegate, Queensland University of Technology

Shirley Jackson, University of Melbourne

Dr Jane Carey, University of Wollongong

Matthew Absalom, The University of Melbourne

David Vakalis, School of Social and Political Sciences, Monash University

Louise Corney, SUPRA

Dina Afrianty, La Trobe University

A/P Martha Macintyre, The University of Melbourne

Desiree Lane The Arts Unit NSW

Associate Professor Jane Haggis, Flinders University

Associate Professor Katherine Ellinghaus, La Trobe University

Dr Dave McDonald, University of Melbourne

Tooba Anwar, Western Sydney University

Dr Joni Meenagh, RMIT University

Dr Victoria Stead, ARC DECRA Senior Research Fellow, Deakin University

John Kennedy, University of Newcastle

Catherine Gomes, RMIT University

Professor Meaghan Morris, University of Sydney

Dr Sahar Ghumkhor, University of Melbourne

Dr. Maree Pardy, Faculty of Arts and Ed, Deakin University

Mark Gawne, University of Technology Sydney, FASS

Dr Jessica Ford, University of Newcastle

Paula Hendrikx, University of Melbourne

Hamish Clark, University of Melbourne

Divya Rama Gopalakrishnan, University of Melbourne

Vasiliky Kasidis, University of Melbourne

Dr Alex Pavlotski, La Trobe University – University of Auckland

Dr. Marc de Leeuw, UNSW Law

A/Prof Tanja Dreher, University of New South Wales

George Maxwell, Monash University and University of Melbourne

Dr Carolyn D’Cruz, La Trobe University

Nathan Gardner, University of Melbourne

Dr Jacinda Woodhead, editor Overland magazine

Dr Grace Yee, University of Melboure

Joshua Specht, Monash University

A/Prof Clare Corbould, Deakin University


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  1. I agree with your commitment to focusing on the role of neoliberal University management and to speaking out against the victimisation of international students.

    Like you all there are some aspects of the framing of the 4corners that I do not agree with.

    Nevertheless I do urge you to re-view the program and to consider whether the summary contained in your open letter is a fair assessment of the actual program content. Misrepresententing this only serves to harshen the debate and we move away from the matters of central concern and finding solutions that will ultimately benefit these students.

    Your summary disregards the views offered by international students themselves, the views and actions of caring local students, and does not give credit to the extra work being undertaken by academics who set up support groups for international students. This, often very personal, additional work is being undertaken by caring academics around the country in already stretched workload allocations. We should support the revelation of this, not condemn it.
    Further, you gloss over the central motivation of the Murdoch academics who speak out. Please listen carefully to what they say. Care for these students is at the core of their concerns. Their motivating position is one of affinity – because they feel it is an unacceptable way to treat people, they have spoken out. To me, this position of affinity and care is the opposite of a racist attitude.

    This letter has been a rapidly written response to the program. I therefore encourage you and those who have signed the letter to apply critical attention, to watch the program again and consider to rephrasing your response.

    In its current form it can used to criticise the very people who have spoken out about the ways in which these university practices
    are potentially setting people up for failure.

    Yes, call out racist attitudes when you see them, but please be careful and specific.
    We need to work together to speak up against those who have neglected their duty of care for these students in order to make a profit.

  2. Some new signatures have come through:

    Dr Grace Yee, University of Melboure

    A/Prof Clare Corbould, Deakin University

  3. This letter serves to skew the issue at stake aired by Four Corners, and I urge signators to reconsider, or redraft the letter. I agree that care must be taken in discussing overseas students and comparisons with local students. There is room for racism, if we allow superficial debate. But the points raised in Four Corners are very different. These whistleblowers have exposed shady practices that can only harm ill-prepared students, both financially and mentally. And those practices have been promoted and tacitly accepted by senior managers of the university. Not in the interests of combatting racism, but for profit.

  4. Am I reading this wrong, or is this letter literally calling for unlimited free university places in Australian universities for…everyone…in the world? I mean that does seem nice.

    1. I was lucky enough to be able to move to Germany for my postgraduate education. There University is free for everyone – even international students. This used to be the norm in other countries as well. It makes good economic and diplomatic sense in the long run. The idea that univerities should charge fees is relatively new, even in Australia.

  5. This open letter seems to have missed entirely the intention of the Four Corners episode, and the NTEU president’s recent statement in response to the episode – and I would second the motion to please re-watch it. It is neither “racist” nor based on “anti-immigrant politics”. The main point being that many universities after years of funding cuts have been forced to rely on international student money, and that the most financially desperate and corrupt of these universities – and Murdoch is not alone – have exploited international students with false promises of quality higher education, and put academic standards in jeopardy.

    This very specific cohort of international students, who have been sold a lie and do not have the language skills to receive an adequate education, are truly the victims here. They would still be the victims even if after arriving their university supplied them with intensive English language tutoring, as the signed letter suggests as a solution – but I would ask you to please put yourself in these students’ shoes and consider studying at a foreign University in these very stressful circumstances. They have in fact been placed in an impossible situation. Students often arrive the week before classes and with little time to learn English while studying full time – the suggestion that this a solution is ludicrous! English language proficiency tests are “racial exclusion”? Let’s be clear here – we are talking about students coming to Australia to receive education in English; an education that they then cannot receive (and yes, this also has significant impacts on other student cohorts’ experiences and on teacher workloads). These students are the victims and the corporatised universities, who take money from these students, are the villains (not the journalists who reveal this corruption – well, I say “reveal”, but how many of us were surprised?).

    Such students are inappropriately enrolled – and their enrolment is the very symptom of the corporatisied higher education system. Education, much like Health, does not respond well to privatisation – it eats itself alive and undermines everything that it once stood for. What do we stand for?

    I wholly support international students attending Australian universities and I commend the work already done to support these students in their studies. We know there is good work being done across the sector. We should be focusing on holding the Federal Government and the higher education sector to account. Properly funded education, well-supported students, and, yes, upholding academic standards, including English language proficiency standards – this is exactly what we should be fighting for.

  6. Oh looky the vested interests making a motza from the education screaimng RACISM. Oh deary me, what a dead giveaway.

  7. I must agree with other commenters here, in that I think the letter substantially misunderstands the issues raised by Four Corners.

    Of course international students ought to be welcomed with open arms. But English-language proficiency is not a racial gatekeeping mechanism. It’s there to protect prospective students from being exploited. They’re in an extremely vulnerable position.

    Yes, with proper funding, universities could provide more support services. But even with unlimited funding, a university cannot ethically enrol students who do not stand a realistic chance of passing, especially if there’s a clear language barrier. If we’re prepared to do what it takes to improve students’ English, this is going to significantly increase the overall length of their study, and therefore the expense of their stay in Australia (just the cost of living). They need to know that before they sign up.

    There is also a more general question of pre-requisite knowledge. The Four Corners programme also raised the issue of virtually non-existent IT skills, for instance. Given that a lot of these students were apparently enrolled in a Master of IT programme at Murdoch, this is a massive gap, and one that could take years to remedy.

    Clearly this is a sensitive topic, with *potential* for racist attitudes to prevail if we are not careful. But the programme did not demonise international students; it sought to reveal their plight. The staff interviewed in the programme were clearly primarily concerned for the success and welfare of these students.

  8. 4 Corners’ reporter Elise Worthington herself acknowledges that the show is racist and dodgy. In this podcast clip, she admits that the “Australia students she interviewed sounded “really racist,” but defends their “concerns” as legitimate. Note that “Australian” here is explicitly associated with “white.”

    Worthington then admits that her wider evidence is mostly anecdotal, and “almost impossible to prove.”

    Racist framing, poor evidence. How far can anyone go to defend a show like this?

    1. Sure, I can defend the important words of people who are standing up for international students, in an economic relationship where they are being exploited.

      Finally we have academics who speak up against university management in the interests of students. And instead supporting the revelation of this and the need for an open discussion, you and co-signatories seem to overlook their words and create a petition that only serves to make the issue more divided.

      Yet again, in this comment you are misrepresenting what has been said. Elise Worthington does not say the show is “racist and dodgy”. In the interview you link to, Elise Worthington acknowledges that the perceptions of students may sound racist, and in so doing helps us to understand why this matter needs to be addressed.

      Evidence is very often ‘anecdotal’ because in the current situation where there is pressure to pass paying students, data on pass rates is not sufficient. The quantitative metrics which TEQSA or university managers may use do not suffice.We need to hear this anecdotal evidence from academics.

      The academics from Murdoch interviewed here are not speaking from a racist position.They care about the ethics of how international students are treated by the universities in which they study.

      1. Ok,I will edit myself here. Not ‘Finally’ because I know a lot of academics have been doing this for a long time.

        What I mean is that too often we grumble about this situation among ourselves, but do not speak up about it publicly.

        See, it doesn’t take much to edit your comments – Maybe you and co-signatories above want to review your words, and clarify what you mean.

        1. Not sure where you got that from – nowhere in the letter are people attacking the academics. The letter specifically makes it clear that the issue is with the framing of the show, and acknowledges the academics’ “concern for the wellbeing of international students and an opposition to the profit motives of university management. ”

          As for Worthington, the problem is that she acknowledges there is racism yet still legitimizes the racists’ concerns, and conflates “Australian” with “white.”

          Calling out racism is by no means in contradiction with defending academic workers.

          1. Shan, the profit driven motives of the universities are precisely what drives the inappropriate enrolment of students who not meet English language proficiency standards. Pointing this out is not part of a racist narrative (and yes we must be very careful that it does not play into one). We must speak up and defend the exploitation of international students by the higher ed sector. To deny that this is happening is to be complicit in the neo-liberal agenda that pervades the sector. We should have the sense, the intelligence and the heart to defend both students’ rights and academic standards- these are not mutually exclusive aims.

          2. In addition, I condemn Elise Worthington’s use of the term “white Australians” in the followup interview posted here, it is a stupid, inappropriate comment that distracts from the central concerns raised in the episode itself, but it does not mean that these concerns should be attacked in the name of anti-racism – let’s not conflate two discrete issues.

          3. Thanks for engaging in a discussion on this. The next stage would be to go back and edit the original letter.

            Your letter does not make it clear ‘that the issue is with the framing of the show’. It asks the NTEU to ‘condemn the program altogether’.

            In ‘condemning altogether’, I am concerned the letter might be used to criticize those staff and students who speak on the program and to disempower the importance of what they are saying.

            I did not say the letter is ‘attacking the academics’.
            I wrote that we need to support the revelation of student exploitation and call for a more open discussion – (one that, were the letter to be rewritten, we could help to ensure is not framed by racism).

            I agree: there is not a contradiction between calling out racism and defending academic workers… or defending international students for that matter.

            Moreover, this has to be a conversation where we read and listen to others’ views carefully.

  9. I agree with the letter that international students shouldn’t be demonised, and that more scrutiny should be applied to the commercial practices of the universities.

    However, if you’re ‘new to the English language’, as the letter states, then you probably shouldn’t be at university (the signatories think it fine). Who do the signatories think is going to teach students who are ‘new to english’ to write a paper on the some undergraduate (or even Masters program) topic? Learning a language takes time. Even native speakers have a ways to go. In an age of quick fixes, language isn’t one of them.

    I feel sorry for local year 12 students, who struggle to achieve a place at university, who have grown up learning English while seeing how they still need to learn more, and yet watch as international students ‘new to English’ swan in to a place of their choosing (because they’ve got the money up front).

    The letter is hastily written and ill-thought out. A damning indictment on our academic class, a crude and blunt reading of the 4-corners program. More time should be spent on discussing the problem of universities having been set up to run like profit-maximising corporations selling education as a product. We should be able to have this discussion (like the one about population) without racism. The academics here cited do us all a disservice in not showing us how this might be done.

    They’ve brought the hammer of judgement swiftly down.

  10. All of this is a complete distraction from the main issue at hand – under-funding of Universities over 30 years of Labor and Liberal governments.

    The other thing the signatories don’t seem to realise is that if you come from the countries where most international students come from, you are most likely elite if you speak English at all. In fact, if you have even made it out of the country to study at all.

    Why should Australia subsidise those same elites who will go back to their country and form the ruling classes there?

  11. A post script for the lit crit crowdsourcering of representations and misrepresentations.

    Here is an outcome:

    Whether cash cows or scape goats – name calling on the basis of animal instincts has meant the words of those asking for reflection and a consideration of ethics are now belittled and disregarded.

    Please take down your poorly drafted letter and work to support academics on this issue.

  12. Sorry NTEU but if you believe that the Four Corners programme misrepresents the current issues around international student intakes in Australia, you are truly deluded. And by the way, the end product is then students with degrees and post-grad qualifications that they truly did not earn, winning jobs that are ill-equipped to do. I don’t doubt for a moment the veracity of your claims re university funding. But that in no way diminishes the veracity of the issues presented in this program. Suggesting that a country whose primary language is English is racist in suggesting that students meet certain proficiency in that language is just as ludicrous as suggesting that a student attending a university in a country where [insert any language you wish here] is the primary language should not demonstrate a certain proficiency in that language. Honestly, just blatant stupidity that diminishes the value of all tertiary education.

  13. I didn’t have any expectations concerning that title, but the more I was astonished. The author did a great job. I spent a few minutes reading and checking the facts. Everything is very clear and understandable. I like posts that fill in your knowledge gaps. This one is of the sort.

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