Or perhaps, these are some of the missing pieces.
In the mid-aughts, the international student recruitment trend was on an upward trajectory in Western developed countries. Some said that attracting international talent would help diversify and future-proof higher education. Maybe that’s where it started (and, I’m no expert), but somewhere between 2007-2009, it seems the ‘higher ups’ in the big buildings enlisted fancy PR folks to change the goal posts and up the ante on attracting, I mean, targeting more and more international students. A federal parliamentary inquiry in 2018 revealed that loopholes in the Australian migration laws allowed universities, vocational and other training schools to exploit international students. Even organised crime and illegitimate labour hire companies jumped in on the opportunity to earn high profits at the expense of these people. I once overheard a recruitment agent in the toilets say, ‘if they have a heartbeat and a credit card, we’ll take them.’ I knew who he was talking about. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the intersecting forces of neoliberalism and settler colonialism underpinned these unethical practices. They had their model and story. It was refined, scaled and replicated at the detriment of vulnerable people. I’d been around a lot of these institutions over the years and sadly they were all the same – complicit and culpable, and never accountable.
I am witness to the cycles and a listening agent to the affected. I am the story agent for the takedown.
Back then, at the beginning of each school term, tens of thousands of international students flooded corridors, libraries and support services. In many universities, almost a third of students were from overseas. You could tell them apart from the domestics in lots of ways, but mostly because they were the ones who hung around on campus after hours socialising and/or studying. After years of eavesdropping, I picked up a few of the languages and had a good sense of what brought most of them here to study, their anxieties and ambitions. For many, the prospect of gaining a permanent visa was a powerful draw card. For others, they believed there would be koalas, kangaroos and cockatoos on the lawns and white sand beaches within a stone’s throw of their UniLodge. Study here and it’s all yours for the taking. It all sounded so enticing until the week after Orientation Week (O-Week) and tuition was paid in full. The reality is that most of these students never ventured far from campus or their own cultural groups. After bank accounts were depleted for their Australian degree, many left Australia without ever having dinner at an Australian’s home or affording a beach holiday. It’s sad, ain’t it.
International education export was big business (cha-ching…like a billion-dollar kind of business). Right after iron ore and coal, international education was like a keystone species of the Australian economy. Remove the keystone and you have a sort of trophic cascade. Everyone knows about the Yellowstone wolves doco, right?
Anyway…higher education institutions incrementally increased their international student revenues for more than a decade until March 2020. International students were hit really hard during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Melbourne, most of the academic and professional staff escaped the city to Mount Martha, Ocean Grove or the hills. I might have done the same if I had the means. People were really scared in those early days of the pandemic igniting more paralysis and flight than altruism and fight. Self-preservation trumps the welfare of others in a disaster situation and only amplifies the pre-existing order of shit that’s already there under the surface. The ongoing poor treatment of international students and the lack of emergency planning for such a large group of people were such things.
The lockdowns came within weeks of many international students arriving and barely settling into the university precincts. You can imagine how everything upended for these students, many with limited means and taking risks for the first time away from support and family in a foreign country. The fault lines quickly became apparent in the lack of foresight, accountability and care for the students. Isolated and locked out of government support services, students became reliant on online social messaging platforms to resource their basic needs – many choosing their mobile phone plan payments over meals. In Melbourne’s CBD, by the time the Food Bank opened its doors, the line of international students stretched hundreds of metres. Newspapers reported the situation and posted images of the students, masked and socially distanced. All were on mobile devices which to viewers was probably ignored or interpreted as an activity to mediate the boredom of standing in line for hours. I bet it was never imagined to be an act of mobilisation that eventually led to the takedown.
Covert activism comes in many forms, intended or consequential. Like Mum used to say, ‘the mice come out to play when the cat’s away’. Threats aren’t always big once-off events. They often emerge from the things you’re not paying attention to or the accumulation of tiny little actions by the many who outnumber the few. We have a song about this in Australia, the one written by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly about big things growing from small things.