In the old imperial district of Beijing, a Ming dynasty mansion is now used as an auxiliary campus by Beijing Normal University. In one of the converted classrooms a group of students are making preparations to leave for Australia next semester and begin their university education abroad. Their first stop will be the University of Adelaide for a two-month intensive language and study skills program.
When I meet with them they’ve just come out of an information session and are armed with a kind of guidebook for international students that – as one student tells me – tells them everything they need to know. The packing list includes extra batteries, pens (which are very expensive in ‘your country’) and a raft of other stationary. The hotchpotch document also contains a warning against travelling to Darwin (although no one can tell me why); they keep referring back to it as if it really is all they need to know, but most of the information is irrelevant, inaccurate or contradictory.
For almost all the students this will be their first trip outside of China. This is the final leg of the domestic part of their plan (or, more accurately it seems, their parents’ plan). They strike me as oddly incurious about the country they’ll spend the next three or four years of their lives.
Most of what they know about Australia has been relayed to them by friends and acquaintances already studying there: One girl worries she’ll be served steak five times a week, another that seagulls will terrorise her while she eats and another asks me pleadingly if they sell baozi (steamed dumplings) in Australia.
One student, Moon, wearing thick-rimmed, lenseless glasses and carrying a parasol to protect herself from Beijing’s sun tells me she wants to experience Australian culture. ‘What is it?’ she asks as if it’s something that can be downloaded. I recommend she heads along to the Adelaide Oval to watch a game of AFL, which she notes down dutifully.
These students are cash-cows for Australian universities. They pay the highest fees, and pay them up-front. And, unlike their Australian counterparts, these students won’t take part in protests the like of which have recently been seen on campuses throughout the country in response to the Coalition’s budget.
The students I meet aren’t even engaged in Chinese politics and it will be their parents who’ll pick up the bill for their degree. Most are stereotypical examples of the kind of young people one would expect an authoritarian, ultra-capitalist regime to churn out. In high school many of them arrived before 7am and didn’t leave until after 10pm; they speak about the pressure they were under, but rather than complain they just chalk it up as ‘Chinese culture.’
Now in Beijing, away from their parents and in a less regimented and competitive environment, a few students talk about looking forward to the ‘freedom’ of Australia; not political freedom, but freedom to play video-games when they want, freedom to come home when they like and freedom to turn up to class if they feel like it.
These young students are products of a rising China: They’ve seen little more than the inside of a classroom, they’re dogged in their determination not to question authority, everything they’ve ever learnt in school has been by rote, their studies have been completely devoid of creativity and they’re consumed by their status-accruing accessories like iPhones or take-away tubs of Starbucks coffee (yes, you did read that correctly).
They’re also an integral part of the Australian government’s education policy and, in many ways, they are the embodiment of the flawed education-as-business model that has become the template for tertiary institutions across the country.
These students, like most international students, are not the best and brightest; rather, they’re the wealthiest and best connected. They’re the sons and daughters of government officials and executives. These students come from the families that won when Deng Xiaoping opened China up to the rest of the world.
While the disparity between rich and poor in Australia is not as pronounced as it is in China, the Coalition’s proposed changes to fee structuring will unquestionably hit those local students from low socio-economic backgrounds the hardest.
Most of these students have come through the public school system, unable to afford the exorbitant fees of the country’s ‘elite’ private schools. If they manage to overcome this and earn a position on merit at one of Australia’s universities, they’ll spend years building daunting levels of debt. This would be less of a problem if employment outcomes and projected earnings could be guarantee, but they obviously can’t be.
Many of these students have spent years studying hard in order to escape the cycle of debt they’ve experienced first-hand. The pathway seems straightforward enough: Work-hard, get good grades in school, get accepted into a good university, graduate, walk into your dream job. Unfortunately things rarely go so smoothly and these for-profit education institutes take advantage of those who strive to move up in the world through their learning and education.
The Abbott government’s predilection for the American-style marketisation of higher education threatens to exacerbate inequality between rich and poor even further; any way one looks at it, their shared brand of market fundamentalism seems particularly callous.
In the aftermath of the ‘Great Recession’ one of the meanest U.S. government policies that contributed to many people’s hardship was to make student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. And those that it affected most were young people from low socio-economic backgrounds, already crippled with debt and unable to find employment.
Not to be outdone, the Coalition’s budget has its own nasty surprise that takes aim at young people unable to find employment; people under 25 will no longer be eligible for the dole and those under 30 will have to endure six months of mutual obligation before they receive a payment.
There’s no question that the dole has long been a flawed and often rorted system, but it’s also a necessary one. Young people do find themselves out of work and, if they’re recent graduates, they’ll soon find themselves with higher levels of student loan debt than ever before. How they’re meant to get by and survive until they find work is just one of the many holes in the government’s budget that can’t be filled with meaningless platitudes.
The most significant consequences of the Coalition’s quest to marketise higher education may not be felt for some time, but rest assured that if Australian universities become exclusive institutions – open not to the smartest and hardest-working students from Australia and abroad, but to those with the deepest pockets – the ramifications will be grave.