UniMelb not offering rebates for students stuck overseas—but why?

2 June 2021

“Why are we paying so much to attend Zoom University?” Ah, the common line we hear these days. COVID-19 has definitely changed university life drastically, particularly for international students stuck overseas. Many feel that the quality of education has been severely compromised, especially with the lack of face-to-face interaction. Having to pay hefty tuition fees each semester feels like paying extra for a premium online course—with the student life aspect a far cry from pre-COVID days. 

It is no wonder that students are not considering pursuing overseas education lately, with many parents’ sources of income greatly affected. 

In a bid to attract more students, universities such as the University of Adelaide are offering fee rebates of up to 20 per cent for continuing and commencing overseas international students. As for the University of Queensland, its rebate is 12.5 per cent. 

It’s a smart move for these universities to prevent public backlash as well. Online petitions indicate significant demand from students to get a refund for their studies. Students believe that universities do not need much money now that everything’s online, and they are just collecting that money as profit. 

In UniMelb’s defense, they allege they are not collecting fees purely for profit. They claim they cannot offer student rebates, because they need the money to run basic services and pay staff the bare minimum. Back in late 2020, an article by The Guardian stated that the University had cut 450 jobs due to projected losses of $1 billion, caused by factors such as reduced student and commercial revenues. In the article, Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell emphasised that the University is doing all it can to use its savings wisely, even drawing on reserves from previous years. 

However, looking beyond the surface, we realise the loopholes in this argument. Is the money really used to pay staff adequately? According to an article by ABC News, millions of dollars are being quietly repaid to at least 1500 academics across various disciplines involving a “wage theft” case in UniMelb. This resulted in massive outcry and growing concern that this may happen in other universities.

Looking at a University report released in February 2021, there was a budget surplus of $8 million in 2020, $66 million less as compared to 2019. The University can argue that this surplus came from “prudent” financial decisions, and that it is needed for “specific endowments”, but it can’t be denied that a surplus of $180 million is still a lot. How did it come about, especially when student enrolments have decreased? 

This has led to student-led campaigns such as No Cuts at UniMelb being vocal in their displeasure at the University treating international students like cash cows. Their most recent protest on 14 April was the result of the University administration demanding 10 per cent expenditure cuts for every faculty, which will likely cause students to suffer a poorer quality of education. The protesters argued that the demand for cuts isn’t understandable given how rich the University is. 

Rebates, however, do not guarantee that all students will continue with their studies during the pandemic, and could mean that universities still suffer. The question now is to consider the long-term consequences and how long this situation will last—something still largely unknown. 

For starters, COVID-19 is highly unpredictable, especially across countries. There is also a big “what if” towards Australia itself, and whether things might become worse. There is also much talk about vaccines and how successful they are in preventing disease spread. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Australia is on track to reopen its borders by October 2021. However, there are no guarantees. 

So, the decision lies at students’ hands: to fork out more money to Zoom University, or to defer studies or change universities? Will the same problems persist? 


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