coronavirus

International students’ demand for fee relief and compensation

12 June 2020

Students at the University of Melbourne have come together to campaign for the reduction and compensation of their tuition fees following the switch to online classes. Gathering on platforms like Facebook, over 3,500 students have in the last two months joined groups such as UNIMELB-Fee Reduction-Online Teaching-COVID 19, where they are sharing experiences and grievances around a widely perceived deterioration in teaching quality. 

All University campuses were closed on 24 March, and the transition to a virtual campus was completed on 30 March. This follows the National Cabinet and Victorian Government decisions to implement Stage 1 restrictions in the state of Victoria.

According to Jasraj Bhaizada, co-admin of the Facebook group, “the campaign simply demands a discount on the tuition fee paid by the students because [they] are not receiving the type and quality of education they were promised.”

“The compensation should recognise the lack of resources, administrative and teaching issues faced by students as a consequence of the transition to virtual teaching,” added co-admin of the Facebook group Azhar Ulislam.

Although these issues affect all students at the University, it is evident that the stakes are higher for international students. According to the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) International President Archit Agrawal, international students, who pay a disproportionately higher sum for each subject, are not receiving the benefits and quality of education they invested in.

The breakdown of undergraduate course fees per year for international and domestic students in 2020 is as follows.

DETERIORATION IN CLASS QUALITY

There is a general consensus amongst students that online teaching is unable to fully substitute physical classes to various extents. “In-class experience of a subject is nowhere comparable to the current pre-recorded monologues and Zoom-based discussions,” said Robin*, a graduate student. 

Additionally, students undertaking practical-based subjects are no longer able to access on-campus resources and facilities. “The online platform is not a suitable platform for courses which offer practical subjects, depriving students of the practical experience,” said Ulislam. Testimonials on the Facebook group range from students experiencing tutor absences and reduced class times to receiving recycled lecture recordings from previous years, new recordings with compromised audio quality, or no recordings at all.

Tutors echo similar sentiments, “I would say it is optimistic at best to suggest the teaching quality has not changed at all in the shift to online.” said Sam*, a computing tutor, “It’s much harder to judge how students are going with their work online, which is something I rely on a lot to deliver effective teaching.”

“Students are noticeably less willing to participate in classes than they usually would be,” Sam added. “I think this is down to a number of factors including anxiety, accessibility, the “feeling” of the classroom environment, technical issues and so on.”

Tutors, being the primary mode of contact between students and subject coordinators, are also feeling the challenges of this transition. “As a teacher I am having a lot of difficulty teaching online. It causes me a lot of anxiety, and is frustrating as class numbers have noticeably decreased this semester,” said Sam.

Another tutor, Jamie* added, “As hard as [tutors] try, we all know that being on campus delivers an inherently better experience than online teaching… students lose the benefit of face-to-face interaction with staff and fellow students – especially that casual interaction at the beginning and end of classes that is so important to the university experience and student mental health.”

Additionally, there is also the issue of unequal access to technological resources and WiFi connectivity amongst students. Jamie continued, “students are missing one or two or three weeks of classes, seemingly at random, due to technical glitches on either end and they’re losing time on online assessments because their internet connections have dropped out.”

The University has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the deterioration in education quality and has ruled out any compensation or fee reductions. In the latest email sent to all international students, Deputy Vice-Chancellor International Michael Wesley wrote,

“Questions around fees have also been raised, so I am reiterating the University’s position that fees will not be changing… The University could not have anticipated COVID-19, and our academics and learning support teams are working around the clock to improve and enhance your online learning experience… The amount of work, time and intellect going into our teaching is the same as would have been the case without these challenging circumstances.” 

Recently, UMSU submitted a “Fee Relief Survey” report to the University which presented 6,400 students’ experiences evidencing that the quality of some subjects had deteriorated due to the switch to online delivery. Despite this, the University has maintained its position.

“We will continue to push for this. We will always advocate for issues that are impacting students,” said UMSU President Hannah Buchan.

“The argument that the quality of subject delivery hasn’t been affected is the most farcical one so far. If that was the case, then the University would have offered online degrees at the same fees as on-campus degrees long ago,” said Robin.

“Now I understand that many of these situations are out of the University’s control but that doesn’t mean international students should have to bear the burden of this. They paid close to $5,000 and above for each of their subjects and given the current circumstances, no matter what caused them, it is morally wrong for the University to keep charging them the same amount as they were before the global pandemic,” said Agrawal. 

Farrago has reached out to the University for an updated response since the email, and a spokesperson said,

The University’s move to online learning and the creation of a virtual campus community maximises the opportunities for students to study effectively and successfully, while maintaining the vitally important quality and standards of our degrees and sense of community. The transition to a virtual learning environment is a new way of operating and a new style of learning, however we continue to provide a top-quality education commensurate with a University of Melbourne degree. Tuition fees have not been changed.

UNIVERSITY SUPPORT

The University has designed an Emergency Support Fund (ESF) to assist students experiencing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19. The ESF is in tandem with earlier University COVID-19 related support packages from the University, such as the Student Support Grant for students impacted by travel restrictions and falls under the University’s overarching pay limit of $7,500 across all COVID-19 related student packages.  

The categories targeted by this are ‘category 1: IT upgrade and study support’ for students requiring support to cover the costs of a computer/high-speed internet etc, ‘category 2: loss of income’ for students who have lost a secure source of income due to COVID-19, and ‘category 3: cancelled overseas study’ to assist students who were on or about to commence overseas study in semester 1 whose travel insurance did not cover their costs.

The loss of income category requires a declaration of current average income alongside supporting payslips, bank statements and/or personal declarations. According to Agrawal, UMSU International has been pushing the University to expand their eligibility criteria. “When it comes to students who are working cash in hand jobs who have lost their jobs and cannot prove that they have lost a job, it is a very tricky situation,” he said.“This cohort is largely made up of international students, so [they] are at a particular disadvantage here.”

However, the issue persists that these grants do not cater sufficiently to the disparate risk International Students face. Though these grants are available to all students meeting the criteria, international students receive far less overall support relative to domestic students, who are eligible for Centrelink payments as well. 

“The Emergency Support Grant only covers a limited aspect of the problems and a limited number of students,” added Bhaizada. “This grant should be made available to every student not only the ones with a disadvantaged background or who have seen their overseas study get cancelled. Every student, in my opinion, has been affected both financially and mentally, and thus should be fairly compensated equally – that is why a fee remission serves everyone well.” 

Students have also reported long processing times for their grant applications. In a presidential news video update to students, UMSU General Secretary Jack Buksh said, “it’s supposed to be an emergency support fund yet the funds don’t seem to be in a hurry to reach students.” UMSU has encouraged students to reach out to their Advocacy department with their case numbers to be reconciled.

Other universities in Australia have implemented measures to further support their international students financially. For instance, the University of Western Sydney announced a 10% reduction in fees for all international students enrolled in Undergraduate and Graduate courses.

Griffith University also announced an increase in their COVID-19 Student Support Bursary, largely funded by a voluntary pay reduction of 20% from the University’s Senior Executives. Additionally, the University has implemented financial support measures for an almost 20% reduction in international student fees in Trimester 2 alongside equity scholarships and support for Indigenous students. 

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

The Department of Home Affairs has allowed international students to underload and defer their studies without affecting their visa status. Student visas previously required all international students to undertake four modules per semester and complete their degree within the stipulated degree period.

Some students were relieved by this concession while others were apprehensive in fear of hidden costs and clauses that would jeopardise their studies. But according to Anushree Gupta, “the process [to change the study plan] was very easy. We had to submit a proposed study plan. No hiccups and no hidden costs. Stop 1 was extremely helpful.”

Robin is grateful for this allowance and has chosen to drop two subjects. “Apart from the obvious quality issues with the current delivery methods, by dropping two subjects, I can save that amount for next semester, easing the financial pressure on my family and buying me some more time to find extra funds to complete my degree, even if it takes a bit more time,” he said. 

Tun Xiang Foo, on the other hand, is apprehensive to underload for the semester in fear of incurring additional external costs, 

“It’s a hassle to renew accommodation leases, Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC) and getting a new Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE)…There’s a lot of hidden costs other than my student visa that I have to take in if I were to give in to applying for a leave of absence.”

The Victorian government has also launched a $45 million International Student Emergency Relief Fund (ISERF) for international students facing financial hardship. Eligible students would first need to be presently physically located in Victoria. Secondly, they would need to have been employed in Victoria in March 2020, and have experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19. The ISERF as employed by the University is not a separate grant but falls under the editing ESF. Applicants will receive a one-off relief payment of up to $1,100 under ISERF but will still be required to adhere to ESF’s overall payout cap of $7,500.

Students have also expressed their disappointment towards the way the Australian government and the University have treated them.

The treatment of international students of Australia has cemented my decision not to aim towards any form of residency here, for words that have been said will be remembered sorely. This is my defiance towards the perception from [Australia] seeing international students “taking advantage” of university here as a gateway to PR and citizenship,” said Foo, an undergraduate student. 

“The University should consider… that international students are also human beings, just like the Australian citizen. They are also affected by the pandemic, probably are in a worse situation than those in first world countries. Not all of them are from wealthy families but are here because they hoped that this country would better facilitate their dreams and aspirations,’ said Robin*.

Currently, the University is working towards a phased and partial reopening of the campus for physical teaching and learning in Semester 2. According to the University, the priority will be given to practical activities and small group teaching with essential face to face elements where they will comply with strict public health and safe distancing measures. 

“We acknowledge that international travel restrictions mean that students who are currently overseas will likely be unable to return to campus in time for commencement of Semester 2…online teaching and assessment will continue as long as necessary for students who are overseas or otherwise unable to return to campus…” said the University spokesperson. 

As of the publication of this piece, there are no mentions of adjustments of semester fees in the case of classes continuing online.

*names have been changed 

For more information on grants and supports available:

Featured image from the University of Melbourne ImageBank, “Old Arts Building – Globe”, taken Dec 18, 2012 12:06:37 PM


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