Executive summary by John R Taylor, Acting Obudsman
1. My office has a longstanding interest in the good administration of Victorian universities. I regularly deal with complaints from staff and students about universities under the Ombudsman Act 1973. I also investigate disclosures of improper conduct at universities under the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2001.
I regularly deal with complaints from staff and students about universities.
2. My experience in recent years has highlighted concerns with the way Victorian universities deal with international students.
3. International education has become a key focus of universities. The number of international students enrolled in onshore higher education courses at Victorian universities tripled between 2000 and 2009 to almost 67,000 students. In 2009, Victorian universities collected $1.16 billion from fee-paying international students, or around 20 per cent of their revenue.
4. International education is also important to the wider Victorian community. In addition to its social and cultural benefits, international education activity as a whole generated $5.9 billion for the Victorian economy in 2009-10.3
International education activity as a whole generated $5.9 billion for the Victorian economy in 2009-10.
5. Victoria’s reputation for providing quality higher education has been a key selling point for universities. There has been considerable effort on the part of governments to protect and promote this reputation, particularly following the recent downturn in the international student market.
6. Complaints from students at universities to my office, however, have more than tripled in the last four years, from 176 in 2007-08 to 534 in 2010-11. Many of these complainants identify themselves as international students and most contact my office because their university has, or is proposing to, exclude them because of poor academic performance.
7. I have observed some concerning patterns with these complaints:
• A number of international students struggle to communicate in English. This is despite the fact that universities are meant to ensure they have appropriate English language proficiency before admission.
• Some universities have been the source of a disproportionately high number of complaints.
8. At the same time, I have received disclosures under the Whistleblowers Protection Act alleging improper conduct at some universities, such as bribery or preferential treatment of students.