A small concession in the scheme of things


ON Wednesday, while deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was in India defending Australia’s dodgy colleges, foreign students were in Melbourne doing some campaigning of their own.

They gathered outside Parliament House, unfurled banners with the words “Fair Fares” and demanded transport concessions for all international and postgraduate students.

Under Victorian legislation, domestic students are eligible for concession fares on public transport, but full-fee-paying international students are not. Victoria and NSW are the only states denying international students transport concessions.

Concession recipients fall into two categories. The first, according to a letter from Premier John Brumby to the Graduate Students Association, is “students in genuine financial need”. Pensioners, unemployed people and those with health care cards are included here.

The second, as the Minister for Transport, Lynne Kosky, explained in a 2007 speech to the Legislative Assembly, is people who “are likely in the future to contribute to the generation of a ‘knowledge economy’ and the creation of a skilled workforce in Australia”. This means domestic students who “represent an investment” for Victoria. The theory is that after graduating, domestic students make a long-term contribution to the Australian economy, offsetting the cost of their subsidised fares.

The Victorian Government argues that international students fall into neither of these categories. If foreign students can afford full fees, then they can’t be in “genuine financial need”. (According to the terms of their study visas, international students must also be able to meet their own expenses.) And because they’re only temporary residents, they aren’t going to make a significant, long-term contribution to the Australian economy. This means they don’t represent a sound investment for the state.

Both these assumptions are flawed. Firstly, although international students pay full fees, many still struggle financially. Recruitment agents in their home countries sometimes lie to them about living costs in Australia and landlords overcharge them rent on arrival. The Fair Work Ombudsman has warned foreign students are “vulnerable to exploitation” in the workplace, too. A few plucky souls, such as Indian student Patrick Sahni, have even taken their employers to court for under-paying wages. At least some of these international students are in “genuine financial need”. The students may have pledged to meet their own expenses, but their visa’s terms didn’t mention anything about discrimination or targeted exploitation.

Secondly, international students make a significant contribution to Victoria’s economy and culture. Education exports in Victoria are estimated at $4.9 billion. International students buy local goods and services and pay the same taxes as everyone else. Their presence increases the state’s cultural diversity and strengthens Australia’s ties with other countries. A 2008 report found that “nearly two-thirds of international students plan to stay in Australia after graduating”. Surely some of these students, many of whom will be granted permanent residency, could be considered “likely in the future to contribute” to our country and economy?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates international education income reached $12.5 billion in 2007, making the sector our largest services export. In the scheme of things, giving foreign students concession cards is, well, a very small concession indeed. It might even save us money on expensive lobbying efforts overseas.