An open letter to Four Corners

17 July 2015

Dear Four Corners,

A while back, you aired a program presenting all the ways international students are ostensibly lowering the standards of Australian universities. Some especially noteworthy points you made were that a) international students cannot speak a single word of English and are hence a terrible danger when released into the wilderness of the Australian workplace, b)  breaking news: we went undercover and this one time we found out that you can buy essays online and c) Australian universities give concessions to international students because they rely on them for money and this is actually the fault of the students.

Now, while it’s commendable that you’re so concerned about the state of Australian education, you also grossly sensationalised the situation and made a series of one-off events seem like a nationwide trend. You raised some good points (really just one good point, that the discussion around international students is one that we need to have), but also completely failed to acknowledge so many important aspects of the situation.

Instead of demonising international students and implying that they are going to ruin Australia with their ‘inability to speak English’ and ‘different customs’, let’s talk about something else.

Let’s start off by talking about how this piece is probably going to be taken as what all international students think, because all those who belongs to a minority group apparently share a hive mind. Full disclosure: I’m of Chinese background, was born in China, have friends and family who are international students, but am not an international student myself. My opinions are different from those of international students. In the process of researching for this piece, I made it a point to talk to actual international students, and the majority of those who I talked to were less critical of their reception by locals than I am.

Let’s talk about how the perception that all international students are millionaires, and therefore lazy and totally apathetic towards their education. I mean, it makes sense because of how much The University of Melbourne charges international student (~$100,000 for a commerce degree, which going by the current exchange rate is equivalent to roughly half a million Chinese yuan). What people fail to consider however is that cases like my roommate’s family back in China basically funnelling all their savings into sending her to university in Australia, even borrowing money from relatives and friends, are the norm. Yeah, the wealthy do make up a big chunk of the international student population, but they are the exception. Not all international students are able to laze around all day and not worry about their classes because they know they have a cushy job, courtesy of mummy and daddy dearest lined up when they graduate regardless of how well they actually do. Why isn’t the same derision afforded to local students in other degrees partying and drinking their course away?

Let’s talk about the fact that when my cousin came from China to Australia to study, she felt so isolated that she tried to commit suicide. Let’s talk about what it feels like to leave everything that’s ever been familiar to you – family, social networks, your entire culture. Let’s talk about what happens when you not only cease to belong to the world you’ve grown up in, but are also not accepted in the world you’ve newly arrived at. Let’s talk about how it feels to have absolutely no support network, to know that if something goes wrong, the only people who actually care enough to help you are a fourteen hour flight away.

Let’s talk about how the IELTS test, the thing that determines whether someone’s English is good enough to study in Australia, is based on academic English, and hence doesn’t assist test takers with preparing for language assimilation. People can study for it, go to classes specifically designed to give them strategies to pass the test, and pass it and still not have a good grasp of conversational English because that’s not what the test is designed for. Newsflash: a person’s ability to communicate with some arbitrary Australian dudebro doesn’t directly correlate to their intelligence.

Let’s talk about the perception that international students are somehow inherently less intelligent than local students because they don’t do as well at university. Recently, my friend went on exchange to Spain. Now, this friend is white, born in Australia, and their first language is English. This is a Facebook post she recently made about her end of semester exams in Spain:

Trying to ask for help from my history lecturer and other exchange students feels like screaming into a vacuum. Explaining that the format of exams and the way questions are asked is different so I don’t understand what is expected of me, and would like some resources to learn how to do better next time has garnered looks of disbelief and dismissal as if I were saying “water is different here, how do you drink it?

Who would have thought that different countries might have different expectations about what constitutes a good essay, how to answer exam questions, the appropriate way to reference, and what counts as plagiarism, and that this might have an impact on how well students do at uni? Why is it that this is considered a legitimate issue for Australian students travelling overseas, but not internationals who come here?

Let’s talk about what makes it so important for students to come to Australia to study, and stay here and get permanent residency, that they’d go as far as to forge high school records and cheat on exams. Remember my roommate? Her family sent her to study in Australia so that she could get permanent residency here because they think her life is going to be better here and they’re going to do whatever they can to achieve that. Sometimes, if there’s half a million yuan of tuition fees, equivalent to a family’s entire life savings,  and the expectations of a whole family, immediate, expanded, and extended to the whole community, at stake, people are willing to go to any lengths to make sure they don’t fail.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about why people have these perceptions to begin with. Let’s talk about how, due to worldwide proliferation of Western media, people have this ideal that the West is some kind of utopian paradise where people definitely don’t get shot because of their race or anything and it’s super easy for a university graduate to get a high paying job and buy a house in no time at all. It’s not like they’re going only to face massive barriers to that like  having employers dismiss their resumes on the basis of their last name, or  having a harder time connecting to necessary networks or anything.

Let’s talk about how Australians’ supposed ‘welcoming’ nature only extends as far as students with poor English and a European accent. As soon as it’s an Asian student it’s tiring and annoying and, like, “I just feel like if they’re coming to a country where English is the only language that people ever speak, they should speak English all the time including when they’re with people who come from the same background as them because it’s absolutely imperative that I never face any barriers to participating in a conversation despite the fact that I wouldn’t participate in it even if I could”.

Let’s talk about how Australia is only ‘multicultural’ and ‘tolerant’ as long as migrants bring with them new and exciting food choices and no other aspects of their culture.

Let’s talk about how hypocritical the ‘go back to where you came from’ argument is.

There are so many issues to do with the challenges international students face in coming to Australia we can be talking about right now. But, Four Corners, you somehow managed to bypass every single one of them, in favour of further antagonising some of our most vulnerable yet passionate scholars, and perpetuating stereotypes by sensationalising a few scandalous examples you were able to get your hands on.