Penny wise and pound foolish

Penny wise and pound foolish

11 Mar 2010

anthony-jarvis-thumb Dr Anthony Jarvis
Email: t.jarvis@latrobe.edu.au

First published in The National Times on 10 March, 2010

The decision to live and study in another country is not taken lightly by either students or their parents. It is a significant financial burden on parents, together with the emotional stress of having a child living half way across the world.

While hosting international students brings substantial financial benefits, the host also has a responsibility to make the international experience safe and rewarding for all concerned. Bruce Baird’s timely review of the framework governing education for international students, notes transport concessions are one of the “key factors that contribute to a students’ overall experience” and that their lack is “strongly felt by affected students”.
 
Unfortunately, the State Government has failed in this critical area: it has denied transport concessions available to every other student in Victoria and to every international student in our key competitor destinations.
 
This ill mannered and poor business decision urgently needs a review.
 
The most recent report from Universities Australia estimates the cost of providing concessional fares for all international students in Victoria at probably something around $40 million annually. This needs to be offset against direct state tax revenue of around $400 million annually. Looked at another way, an international student  delivers around $29,000 in added value to the economy.
 
The cost of providing the subsidy to international students in Victoria is around $1000 annually. It would seem reckless to endanger this very significant contribution to the Australian economy for want of such a small investment.  The report also suggests other benefits. The lower cost of travel, particularly if weighted towards off peak periods, would increase numbers and security on public transport and lower the opportunistic attacks on students walking in isolated places. Simply having more international students on public transport is an important step in integrating them into the wider community
 
This denial of a transport concession comes at a huge cost to Victoria.
Last September the Victorian Government announced a Culture Card as part of its Victorian Government’s new Thinking Global: Victoria’s Action Plan for International Education. The aim of the Culture Card is to connect these students to the community. It is a laudable initiative. It is however set to fail until we give international students the respect of providing one of the most basic amenities a student needs – affordable transport.
 
The lack of a transport concession is a case of the Victorian Government being penny wise, pound foolish. The State Government is putting at risk an industry worth around $17 billion to Australia. The most important task for everyone involved is to put the industry on a sustainable basis – clear out the doubtful operators and make sure we look after the best interests of those who come. As Baird points out, this means getting the regulatory framework right in order to protect both students and our reputation as a destination providing quality education. The industry has grown very fast in recent years where many operators have been more interested in the cash than the students. It would be unfortunate if we had to consider the present State Government as no better. This is an industry which survives on reputation and integrity and it needs a stable and secure footing. At this point our reputation in important countries like India does not need restoring it needs rebuilding from the ground up. The lack of a transport concession in Victoria which students experience as “racist and discriminatory” doesn’t help.
 
Could we expect more from a Ted Baillieu led government?  It seems not. While the Opposition has not missed the political opportunity to critique the inaction of the Brumby Government, it has yet to deliver content as to how it would act. This was evident at a recent Australia-India Business Council dinner when Ted Baillieu repeated his refrain for the need for law and order. There was a lot of attitude but no positive vision of what might be done to connect Indian students to the broader community. When asked directly about extending the general student transport concessions to international students, he shifted from attitude to evasion.
 
The stakes are very high and it is not just a question of cost. It is the messages conveyed. What universities know from surveys is that returning students are the most important factor in determining the ongoing success of international education industry in Victoria. We want and need our international students to feel welcome, supported and secure.
 
As we now so clearly understand, it is not just when they return that they have an impact on opinion in their home country. They are constantly connected and reporting their experiences to friends and family. What Indian students want – as do all international students - is respect and a place in the community. The refusal to extend the transport concession to all international students is galling and with good reason – it actively excludes them from the broader community.

Education providers have worked extremely hard to find ways to practically support their international students. However, no matter what universities or other education providers do for their students, it is the leadership of the State Government that matters. We cannot expect the community to treat Indian students with respect until the State Government does.
 
The most powerful thing the present State Government could do is to change this policy as soon as possible.

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