Permanent residency not sold separately, education not included

The international education industry has been thrust into the public arena not by the bashings of international students but rather by the responses of those students to that violence. Indian community newspapers have carried accounts of violence for years but the recent protests in Australia and subsequent media attention within India finally forced authorities to respond. Governments are now conducting collaborative campaigns of damage control: Indian and Australian officials visiting Australia and India respectively; reviews and roundtables discussing student welfare; a Harmony Day theme. These interventions are about reassurance: Australia isn’t dangerous; if it is, the violence isn’t racist; if the violence is racist, then international students can avoid problems by not dressing, speaking (a language other than English) or electronically accessorising in a provocative manner.

The issues confronting international students, however, go beyond nominally-random acts of violence: the problems students face are fundamentally linked to the nature of the international education industry. Australia’s increasingly sophisticated border control regimes have combined, on the one hand, a proliferation of new visas and pathways to permanent residency and business migration with, on the other, sometimes cruelly punitive restrictions, surveillance and control of undocumented migration (including, until recently, the first system of privatised, user-pays concentration camps in the world). This has created the basis for new commodifications of border mobility, with border control policy now inseparable from the management of new industries, themselves integrated not merely into the reproduction of ‘Third World elites’ but also the global flows of people-as-labour, and the remittance economies underwriting the reproduction of ‘Third World’ populations. In almost surreal tandem, the criminalised figure of the ‘people-trafficker’ was established in Australian political discourse as a threat du jour, even if ‘people-trafficking’ is quietly understood by authorities to be organised around the sale of under-the-counter, cross-border-mobility (-and-usually-work) packages, and even if ‘people-trafficking’ actually mostly threatens an effective state monopoly on licensing legal industries that market superior models of the same commodity.

‘International education’, now routinely referred to as Australia’s third largest export industry, is a key aspect of this legal commodification. Such commodification is always bound up in a complex of interrelated goods sold as packages, where licensed suppliers have the advantage (over any unlicensed competitors) of marketing superior access to the possibility of ‘permanent residency’ and to labour markets, even if some of the packages they sell turn out to be unreliable. Or, as one international student described the situation: ‘permanent residency not sold separately, education not included’.

In the late 1980s, the Labor government began to reintroduce fees for higher education. Hawke government minister Peter Staples explained that previous proposals to charge fees for ‘domestic students’ failed because of opposition within the party and ‘an acceptance by the key government minister and party officials that such a move would be quite electorally damaging’. However, he continued, ‘a drastic fall in the Australian dollar led to a last-minute round of budget cuts in order to give the message to the world’s finance markets that the Hawke Labor Government was AAA-rated when it came to being fiscally tough’. Despite on-campus resistance to the neoliberalisation of universities, the government was already beginning a parallel shift in programs for ‘overseas students’, often encapsulated in the phrase ‘from aid to trade’. This was the shift from the Colombo Plan of the 1950s, under which South East Asian students received scholarships to study in Australia as a bulwark against communism, to partial and then full fees for international students, a process more or less completed by 1990.

The entrepreneurial dynamic of the international education industry expanded into a massive source of institutional revenue, an important element of balance-of-payments calculations, and a key imperative of the properly capitalist university. After 2001, when students were encouraged to apply for permanent residency after completing university or trade courses – and not incidentally when hairdressing was added to the Migration Occupations in Demand List – the industry further expanded with a proliferation of private colleges, many less subtle about marketing the possibility of permanent residency.

The current round of inquiries, and of proposals to re-regulate the sector, cannot be separated from partially conflicting efforts to defend institutional or national market share. In the face of recent public attention, those defending ‘real universities’ have implied that any problems are more or less restricted to newer private colleges and other fly-by-night operations, since the ‘prestige’ (read: marketability, hence profitability) of large public universities depends in part upon such representations. But driving out ‘dodgy colleges’ through state regulation can also mean new border policing, and concern over the scamming of international students can easily slide into concern that institutions are helping students scam their way into Australia.

Though border control regulates these genuinely transnational economies, the image of this industry has long been founded on the implicit denial that the commodification of mobility – the Australian market advantage over the UK and US – exists, except perhaps as a contingent by-product of a random intersection of institutions and government policies: a literally self-effacing industry. Thus academics, commentators and even students have often adopted a somewhat incongruous rhetoric – that ‘genuine students’ are here for ‘education’, while morally dubious people wish to ‘exploit’ possibilities of permanent residency.

The Department of Immigration and Citizen­ship regularly undertakes quasi-actuarial assessments of the likelihood that student visa applicants will prove ‘genuine students’, assessments substantially based upon the proportions of previous students deemed in breach of visa conditions. As a result, while students from the US are only required to say they have the financial resources to support their study, students from countries profiled as problematic are granted visas only if they can prove that they have access to up to AU$50,000. The invocation of the ‘genuine student’ and of ‘immigration risk’ is code for something else: the risk minimised is not of the immigrant but of the unprofitable immigrant – the refugee, for example.

Institutions seeking to expand dedicate substantial marketing resources to potential students in India, China or elsewhere and create ‘feeder institutions’ to channel people into parent institutions within Australia. Meanwhile, within parent institutions, academics design courses to be profitable, often specifically with overseas recruitment in mind, even while managing the casual labour at the bottom end of the academic hierarchy. Some neatly combine these roles: PhD students and tutors are deployed to ‘deliver’ – in many cases, design, run and teach – nominally-Masters-level courses for international students, which are often re-badged undergraduate courses reworked to fit with ‘study in Australia’ General Skilled Migration requirements.

Such profit-seeking expansion requires alliances with existing economic and political forces, including within states and local institutions in target countries, as was perhaps indicated when the RMIT Business School provided those arriving from a feeder program in Wuhan with a student guide advising that while in Australia they should always act as loyal supporters of the Chinese Communist Party. Understanding the active interests of the Indian state and its elites in Australia’s ‘international education industry’ requires an account of the privatisation of Indian technological education, the rise of middle castes, and the deliberate formation of hi-tech workers intended for export – ideally to the US, but also to the secondary labour markets of Canada and Australia.1 But the real consequences of the institutional alliances involved remain largely invisible within Australia, even as students regularly cite such allied forces as one reason to stay quiet.

Here, international students increasingly make up racialised low-wage labour markets across the service sectors, with taxis, convenience stores, restaurants and domestic cleaning positions staffed largely by such students. Some enter sex-work economies because of the possibilities either of informal work or of being able to live on income from twenty hours of work.

A new politics is slowly coalescing, especially in response to the recent protests, seeking to manage and plan the reproduction of these racialised labour markets, mostly without vulgar racism. Harry Chang, Marxist race theorist and former Korean international student in the US, wrote that:

The racial rule of slavery did not aim at reducing all Blacks to slaves; it did, however, try to assure the demographic viability of slavery through racism. Racial groups are not classes, but racial formations are very important episodes in the drama of class formation.

The aims of Australia’s racial politics will certainly differ from those of slavery’s defenders, but the developing interrelations of profitable educational economies and these new racialised labour markets make clear that the issue of racism and international students cannot be reduced to whether xenophobic slogans are yelled by those bashing Australia’s new proletarians.

International student visas nominally restrict overseas students and their spouses to no more than twenty hours of work a week. Given their ineligibility for any welfare, and the difficulty of living on twenty low-wage hours, the restrictions often mean that students seek, at least partially, off-the-books work. Since breaches of conditions are punished by mandatory visa cancellation and deportation, few can act overtly against employers profiting from occupational health and safety breaches, unpaid trial work and massive wage underpayment – though recently UNITE, working with international students, has managed to contest some such practices within 7-Elevens. UNITE is a tiny, officially unrecognised ‘union’ – at least currently, more than a campaigning group – initiated by the also tiny Melbourne franchise of a socialist organisation, the Committee for a Workers International. Working with international student workers, UNITE has confronted employers, forced payment of substantial back pay and, significantly, avoided the potential consequences of visa breaches.

In contrast, some trade unions, such as the CFMEU, invoke the workplace exploitation of international students not as an act of solidarity, nor in a struggle to improve conditions, but in efforts to push particular foreigners out of particular labour markets. The CFMEU and other Left trade unionists wish to increase control of the borders of their labour markets at the point of intersection with the borders of the nation, and definition of ‘Australians’. Since, not that long ago, the CFMEU’s NSW branch was calling immigration authorities into workplaces to remove ‘illegal’ workers, the possibility of unions playing more direct roles in border policing cannot be dismissed.

The CFMEU, according to its submission to the international student welfare Senate inquiry, supports an international education industry that ‘protects the rights and interests of Australian residents’, defined as ‘citizens and permanent residents’, rather than as people who might merely pay enormous amounts of money to live, study, work, consume and pay tax in this country for years. Indeed, it defines students as ‘temporary migrants’ despite the proportion who become permanent residents. In May, the CFMEU and three other Left trade unions called for stronger regulation of ‘people in Australia on temporary visas with work rights’, and for a review to examine whether such rights should be further stripped back. More recently, the union has demanded that visas ban students from any of ‘its’ trades.

The Australian Nursing Federation invokes both student exploitation and ‘concern’ about patient welfare against international students, in particular being ‘concerned about the growth in international students providing care for the frail and elderly’. Its submission recommends that international students who seek to be nurses should demonstrate significantly higher English-language skills, apparently because ‘lack of language skills increases dependence on others including employers, and makes it more difficult for students to know of their rights and to enforce them’. For nurses, international students exist not only as potential competitors for nursing jobs – hence the concern that regulation ‘has failed to keep up with the burgeoning growth in student numbers’ – but as subordinates in low-wage non-nursing positions. In other words, for many student-workers, nurses are effectively or actually their managers.

Unions constantly negotiate the reproduction of ever-changing divisions of labour – divisions of labour constituted in relation to divisions between nations, and between citizens and non-citizens. The relationship of Australian unionism to border control has not been merely an external ideological imposition, but emerges as trade unions, whether dominated by Left or Right, pursue interests within this reproduction. However ‘anti-racist’ it might be, trade unionism – and social democracy generally – pursues interests defined against those deemed outside of the fictive border.

While some unions could incorporate international student workers as dues-paying members, it is no surprise that, when a large group of mostly Indian student cabbies shut down the centre of Melbourne in 2006 and again in 2008, following attacks on fellow student drivers, they did so in wildcat actions without the approval, involvement or even especial interest of trade unions, militant, Left or otherwise. Meanwhile, progressive commentators and organisations have urged that governments and institutions encourage students to join unions even as unions demand enhanced border regulation.

University academics now wield immigration powers not as a contingent excess of regulation but in the very definition of the industry. Staff at universities, TAFE and private institutions determine whether students are meeting visa conditions relating to satisfactory attendance and performance, and approve or refuse students’ visa extensions – marking the roll is border control.

With institutions, departments and academic work increasingly defined by a profit imperative, institutions have developed a variety of formal and ad hoc strategies to not notice problems while suppressing, ignoring or instrumentalising the often covert or individual forms of student resistance. Recent years have seen multiple ‘scandals’ concerning alleged international student plagiarism or cheating, or poor academic standards. Mostly posited as the result of individual moral failings, such scandals are used to confirm that those accused – and some proportion of international students generally – are not ‘genuine’. Those judgements, and the related moral panics, help academics and departments efface their own roles, while making possible institutional practices that may have been difficult in the absence of covertly racialised suspicion.

For example, in 2005, cracks began to appear in the RMIT Business School’s flagship offshore feeder program. Students articulating from a TAFE diploma in Wuhan, China, into the second year of a bachelor degree in Melbourne were taught English simultaneously with the course material. Multiple internal reports noted high rates of failure and appeals for special consideration and exam deferral, alongside questionable recruitment practices and a lack of follow-up support.

By 2006, the RMIT Student Union was forced to launch a public campaign to prevent the Business School from continuing with a ‘blacklist’ of ethnically Chinese doctors who had provided, for use in appeals, medical documentation to Chinese students, including many from Wuhan. The university even toyed with asking the Medical Board to investigate the practitioners, who were the closest Chinese-speaking, bulk-billing doctors in the city.

In the aftermath of the scandal, an RMIT sub-committee chaired by Chris Ziguras developed policies designed to restrict avenues of appeal across the university – a process described as ‘closing loopholes’ by staff involved. Academically, Ziguras works as an expert on international education and offshore education delivery models for government. The committee surveyed Australia’s institutions and constructed new policies from the most narrow and authoritarian available. In other words, RMIT sought to manage consequences of profitable international operations by defining these as individual responsibilities, restricting channels for redress, and hoping that the most damning messengers would be quietly deported.

Such strategies are not unique to RMIT. The institutional management of contradictions – of imposing and re-imposing the social relations of property and exchange, of commodity and economy, upon people for whom the stakes are often enormous – has led to the development of academic minutemen. These are innovators, embodying the drive for new restrictions on student appeal rights, for plagiarism detection software and other ‘educational integrity’ strategies to defend institutional economies from students.

In contrast, some UK academics have been publicly resisting their developing roles in the policing of students, acting in solidarity with international students and attempting to maintain a distinction between border control and academic practice. With the UK adopting a Permanent Residency system similar to Australia’s, and having parallel stakes in the education industry, the distinction will be difficult to retain.

As wildcat industrial actions and angry demonstrations emerge from the everyday social relations of students, only subsequently to be claimed by organisations such as the Federation of Indian Students, states and institutions struggle to manage the contradictions of these economies, developing forms of discipline, new institutional economies of fear. The stakes are high for students; they are also high for institutions and governments. Students deemed to have violated visa conditions are no longer routinely disappeared to distant detention centres for eventual deportation, but the shadow of border policing still falls across every moment of this economy, inseparable from economies of labour, of housing, of survival.

The education industry has been driven by sometimes contradictory institutional imperatives to maximise income and maintain marketability, in economies in which uncontrolled word of mouth can have disastrous consequences. If nothing else, recent events force those efforts to manage contradictions across a wider terrain, with ‘social inclusion’ as a federally endorsed human face. The inquiries, media management and ministerial delegations are an attempt to smooth away disruptions. But, with new student groupings emerging in private colleges and overlapping with networks of taxi drivers, 7-Eleven workers and others, these efforts will hopefully be unsuccessful.

1 Probably the best account can be found in Sangeeta Kamat, Ali Mir and Biju Mathew, ‘Producing hi-tech: Globalization, the state and migrant subjects’, Globalisation, Societies and Education, vol. 2, no. 1, 2004. The only substantial account of the movement of transient IT labour between India and Australia is Xiang Biao, Global ‘Body Shopping’: An Indian International Labor System in the Information Technology Industry, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2006.

Liz Thompson

Liz Thompson currently volunteers with the International Student Legal Advice Clinic in Newport (not on legal stuff exactly because she is not a lawyer).

Ben Rosenzweig

Ben Rosenzweig lives in Brisbane and writes on border control and education issues.

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