Australian media loves a Chinese influence story and, recently, they’ve taken every available opportunity.

This week The Daily Telegraph dined out on yum cha puns in headlines about the ICAC inquiry into donations from Chinese developers, and the Sydney Morning Herald dipped its printer ink into a reliable well of preoccupation: Chinese students in Australian universities. 

Last week, Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) fellow Salvatore Babones wrote in the Herald that “Australian universities are simply admitting too many Chinese students, and too many of them can’t comfortably express themselves in English”. The paper followed up with another op-ed, this time from comedian Meshel Laurie, about the apparent difficulties of learning alongside Chinese students. With what can only be described as big “I-need-to-speak-to-the-manager” energy, Laurie bemoaned having to help “the Chinese kids” with their English. “I don’t want to have to write another sternly worded email!”, Laurie warns readers. 

As a journalist and an academic, these articles make me feel dismayed — but not surprised. This kind of coverage is misguided at its best and racist dog-whistling at its worst.

There is a long tradition of media mania surrounding the intake of Chinese students in local universities: how many students we’re admitting, how they affect campus life, how they impact on classrooms and results, and whether they’re worth the economic stimulation they provide. It’s easy to see some disturbing parallels between the discourse about Chinese students and similar hysteria over “invasions” or “takeovers” from Chinese (or Muslim or African) migrants. 

Importantly, Babones was making a broader point about international admissions: that the fountain of Chinese student money on which universities have apparently been over-relying will soon dry up. I’ll consider Babones the expert on the money, but his assertions about problematic Chinese students in our classrooms are overly simplistic and frustratingly othering. 

First, Babones’ single focus on Chinese students means he is missing one very obvious fact about tertiary education: at university we teach a range of students from various backgrounds, all of whom bring to our classrooms varying comprehension levels and learning differences.

I teach writing, editing and media at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University, which means I’ve encountered a range of students either excelling at, or struggling with, their English expression and comprehension. Just this semester I have grappled with the prospect of failing three students for poor writing and a blatant misunderstanding of assigned tasks — all of them domestic students. 

Some of these students are falling behind because of unequal access to education, which still affects thousands of primary and secondary students across Australia; others are managing learning differences that make writing and editing at a postgraduate level a challenge. Many simply don’t show up to class and suffer the consequences — perhaps because they are plagued by the mounting anxiety and depression that we have noticed affecting our students in rising numbers every year

And, yes, some are international students who speak English as a second language, and so they may need more time or assistance understanding concepts that students who are more fluent in English might grasp more quickly. But this is not exclusively a “Chinese student” problem — it’s a common issue for many ESL students, including those from India and Bangladesh, Venezuela and Argentina, and (shocker!) white-dominated regions like Scandinavia. Funnily enough, though, no one is creating a fuss in a mainstream newspaper about the poor English skills of the international Norwegian students.

What Babones doesn’t mention in his critiques of Chinese students is how difficult it can be to teach any and all university students in the current climate. Increased casualisation means faculties are battling to create long-term teaching plans that will support and engage their students in meaningful ways; diminishing funding leaves gaps in disability and support, where access and assistance is most needed for students. And forget getting Chinese students to engage in group discussions — try getting any student to engage in a group discussion.

It’s hard enough trying to get students to interact without international students being reticent to speak up for fear of exactly the kind of judgment expressed in Babones’ and Laurie’s articles. These students aren’t strangers to racism, and the Herald is not alone in singling out Chinese students as a “problem” to be solved. A colleague of mine recently watched a guest lecturer tell students to form a more orderly line because “this isn’t Shanghai”. This is something my colleagues and I want to actively respond to. We want our students to feel safer knowing we do not share these values. 

Students all over the country don’t deserve to be shamed for daring to access the very education that has given us academics our jobs today. 

Peter Fray

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