While universities commit hundreds of millions of dollars to help domestic and foreign students, dissatisfaction remains.
Long treated as second-class citizens in Australia, international students are now bristling at inequities in the multi-million-dollar hardship packages bankrolled by universities.
With the government excluding foreign students from taxpayer-funded coronavirus assistance schemes, universities have shouldered the responsibility themselves. Almost all have unveiled funds for students impacted by the pandemic, open to locals and foreigners alike.
Assistance ranges from food hampers and short-term loans to grants of up to A$7,500 (£3,800). Most universities offer emergency payments to students affected by job losses or border closures, with many launching philanthropic appeals to complement institutional contributions.
While few universities have specified the sums they are committing to these funds, exceptions include Deakin (up to A$25 million), Monash and University of Technology Sydney (A$15 million each), Flinders (A$12.5 million) and RMIT and the University of South Australia (A$10 million each).
But while these funds are likely to dispense hundreds of millions of dollars, some foreign students are unsatisfied. Grievances include payment delays and a lack of tuition fee discounts for students forced to study online.
Most hardship funds do not provide broad tuition fee waivers, with some specifically ruling them out. Exceptions include Western Sydney University, which offers foreigners a 10 per cent fee reduction, while private Bond University is cutting both domestic and international students’ fees by 20 per cent.
Some universities have also reduced fees for Chinese students, who were the first affected by the crisis. Australia banned direct entry from China almost seven weeks before it closed its border to most other countries.
For weeks, Chinese students were permitted to enter Australia provided they had spent at least a fortnight outside their homeland. Some universities offered them tuition discounts to compensate for the additional travel costs.
A European student at the University of Sydney said these discounts should now be extended to other nationalities, given that all students had now been forced online. He said distance education was inferior to face-to-face study with a more limited subject selection. Two units he had intended to study had been cancelled without notice, said.
“This is unequal treatment,” the student said. “By granting a discount to some international students, universities admit that the current mode of study is not worth the same tuition fees. Universities are not fulfilling their contractual performance towards us.”
The University of Sydney said it had offered a rebate to international students who had been unable to reach Australia by 30 March, and would consequently need to undertake an additional semester.
A spokeswoman said Sydney had “established a broader set of support packages to cover a wider range of issues” when the crisis had forced it to stop face-to-face teaching in the last week of March. “We’ve introduced a suite of support measures for all our students, from financial assistance to technological and mental wellbeing support and more.”
She said online classes offered the same curriculum as face-to-face delivery, taught by the same staff, in classes that supported collaboration and interactivity wherever possible.
An executive from another university, who asked not to be named, said most universities steered clear of fee discounts for fear of encouraging a “race to the bottom” where institutions sacrificed quality to remain competitive.
He said converting to online delivery had cost universities more than running regular courses, and distance education offered students the same qualifications and connections as on-campus teaching.
“If you’re suffering hardship, we’ve got millions of dollars to help you,” he said. “We understand we have a responsibility to help students but we’re doing that by focusing on the students that need it – not the noisy ones who want it.”