Are we going easy on foreign students in order to get more revenue?

Of course we are, but in order to convince the outside world that we are has needed someone to collect the data on the grades given to foreign students and analyse it. Gigi Foster of UNSW has done just that in a study looking at the marks of students of different backgrounds in different classes. The variation she can work with is the performance of international students relative to domestic ones in courses that have varying degrees of these two types (at UniSA and UTS). She consistently finds that the internationals do worse but, because courses are graded ‘on the curve’ (the distribution of marks is almost mandatorily the same across large courses in university) international students do better when there are fewer domestics in the course to pinch the higher marks. Grades within tutorials within a course, are lower for domestics who are in the tutorials with more international students, which is quite strong evidence that there is a dumbing down in those tutorials, which Foster argues is due to the poor language skills of the average international student.

The Australian clearly thought the study was courageous in that a large revenue streams for universities was deemed to have a negative effect on the standards of courses, which in turn will negatively affect domestic students. It brings into focus a trade-off between the revenue stream of fee-paying foreign students and the educational quality enjoyed by Australian students.

Educational quality is notoriously hard to improve by administrative means because, in the absence of market forces, administrations manned by people with short-run incentives have little cause to increase quality and every cause to decrease it. Two ways to go are then to either seek some kind of outside quality signals (a kind of University inspectorate) or else to allow more competition between universities so that it starts to make sense for universities to offer higher quality.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

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