The ‘human rights’ of international students

This morning’s Australian reports on this speech by my U of M colleague Simon Marginson calling for extended rights for international students:

International students are temporary migrants. Nations have the option of treating them as quasi-residents, or as outsiders. Everywhere they are treated as outsiders. Nowhere do they enjoy comprehensive human rights in local law. ……..human rights should not be confined to local citizens.

…we should understand student security as an issue of comprehensive human rights…

we suggest that a strong contribution governments can make to student security is to provide affordable student housing, for a mix of local and international students, in areas where students study and work. [I have altered the sequence from the original presentation]

I am a ‘human rights’ sceptic. As a classical liberal, I unsurprisingly believe that many of the interests and freedoms that find their way into lists of ‘human rights’ are indeed important. But I don’t believe these interests and freedoms are best advocated or defended by simply asserting that they are ‘rights’.

The theories that justify broad ‘human’ rights are all highly contestable, and it is not clear that they actually add weight to the more specific and ad hoc arguments for particular freedoms or interests. The issue of international student security is a good example of this. What does an abstract and legalistic notion like ‘human rights’ add to the argument that violent attacks on innocent individuals are completely unacceptable and should be stopped?

The idea of ‘human rights’ certainly doesn’t help us decide whether the government should provide ‘affordable’ student housing or not. Why should students get more handouts, when ‘affordable’ housing is an issue (indeed, a bigger issue) for the millions of young Australians who will never enrol in a university? These kinds of conflicting claims – between students, taxpayers, and all other potential beneficiaries of government spending – cannot be settled in an intellectually or morally defensible way by one party simply asserting a ‘human right’.

International students should be, and are, entitled to the core political rights and social freedoms of Australian society. Crimes against them should be investigated and the perpetrators punished. International students are pefectly entitled to express their political views (the main threat here being their home governments, not Australia’s). Because the conflicting interests here would not be given much weight by most Australians, they are de facto human rights (ie, they apply to any person in Australia).

But the more specific welfare rights attached to Australian permanent residence are another matter. These cannot be conceptualised as ‘human rights’, because clearly they are specific to a time and place and not things that could plausibly be expected by all humans simply through their membership of the species. Welfare rights are claims on the income and assets of those already in Australia, and it is not clear on what grounds international students should get to make such a claim. Politically, support for the international student program would quickly dry up if they were perceived as a cost rather than a benefit.

As ‘consumers’ (Marginson’s term) international students do miss out on the rights of being permanent residents. But by being consumers they gain the right to study here in the first place.

18 thoughts on “The ‘human rights’ of international students

  1. I read the speech…what a load of bleeding heart garbage. Honestly, it’s all, international students have had a hard time….group hug time!
    First, the speech talks about all these pictures…pic of asians (with caption)_, pic of hijab, pic of eastern europeans, etc, etc…you get the picture…but what’s the bloody point. After shifting through all the crap, the speech giver says international students are robbed of human rights…why? Cause they miss out out on transport welfare, free medical care and scholarships. Ohh bugger me, what a load of tosh! The only thing the article does well is that it admits that the indian bashers are of mixed ethnicticity….which in leftist terms means those from certain backgrounds…lets say african and middle east.


  2. I agree. The one area I think international students have been unfairly stuffed around is in relation to the recent changes to eligibility for permanent residency. Not that any Indian taxi driver I’ve had has complained about it to me.


  3. Andrew Norton said:

    I am a ‘human rights’ sceptic. As a classical liberal, I unsurprisingly believe that many of the interests and freedoms that find their way into lists of ‘human rights’ are indeed important. But I don’t believe these interests and freedoms are best advocated or defended by simply asserting that they are ‘rights’.

    Human rights are nonsense on stilts. Civil rights make sense but they are not derived from “natural law”.

    Post-modern liberalism has utterly lost the ideological plot.
    Modern liberalism is based on the principle of institutional authority being legally accountable to individual autonomies.
    All rights must be balanced by duties.
    And all entitlements (to benefits) imply obligations (for taxes).

    Moreover on the subject of rights, for once I agree with constructives over conservatives. Civil rights are a consequence, not a cause, of the rule of law. There are no innate natural rights.

    But post-modern liberals get it all back to front. They are argue that human nature is “socially constructed”. But that civil rights are naturally conserved.

    Thats just plain lunacy.


  4. If freedom from poverty (through redistribution) is a universal human right regardless of citizenship, why doesn’t Simon Marginson propose sending that welfare money to the poorest people in the world, rather than the comparatively wealthy international students with the good fortune to live and study in Australia?


  5. Robert I can’t find the actual quotation but I remember Orwell having written somewhere that it was impossible for socialists to care genuinely about the conditions of the poor in other countries, as this would mean having to share out almost all of their country’s wealth rather than win a bigger slice of it at home.


  6. I support Simon Marginson’s position calling for extended rights for international students.

    Many remain marginalized for the entire length of their stay and often are treated as second-class citizens and outsiders, which makes integration and social support let alone enjoyable study very difficult.

    There is no question that housing unaffordability discrimination and are factors that add unnecessary burdens to the study load. I have seen so many on the poverty line, without the usual family or other support that others enjoy.

    I am pleased to see attention being drawn to the position of international students, who make a huge input into the Australian economy and attempt against the odds to integrate themselves into the community, potentially adding to the rich multicultural flavor of lour society.

    It is a myth that all international students are wealthy. Some of those who are self-funded do come from wealthy family backgrounds who ensure that they stay in Australia is very comfortable. I have met some of them staying in luxury family-stay situations and willing to be a good price for their creature comforts.

    However, those on AusAid grants or other stipends are certainly not in that league. They struggle hard, many bringing their families over despite grant cuts to single stipend level as they are often unable to make alternative arrangements for the care of children whilst they study.

    I know from personal observation how hard it can be for international students, especially those who are invited here as part of Commonwealth trade agreements with under-developed countries.

    International students need to feel better supported in university and TAFE settings. There is room for improvements to practical support and some cultural attitudes.

    Therefore student engagement needs to be enhanced by policy interventions and initiatives that lead to measurable outcomes for enhanced educational experiences and support.

    I note from an article in the APO recently ACER findings that:

    “Recent events in Australia have highlighted that careful management of the international student experience is imperative, both for individual success and for the health of the system as a whole.”

    Such evidence is sufficient to enhance enquiry and policy directives that reverse the situation and bring student experience on par with their experiences in other countries.

    I would like to support any position that is aimed at equalizing the position of these students in society for the duration of their temporary residence here. Issues of parity and equity are paramount, as well as safety in travelling to and from educational institutions, often late at night. Press coverage of violence and discrimination, including towards international students and others speaks for itself.

    Australia’s international reputation as a safe and enjoyable place to live and study is at stake without proper protection. I have dealt with this issue in relation to the public transport concession article mentioned above.

    Other issues are adequate support for child care that is affordable and does not chew into an already compromised income level especially for those international students who bring their families to Australia during their study periods.

    These tend to me mature aged students, many on AusAid grants coming from developing countries that are part of the Commonwealth, utilizing a last opportunity to improve their educational and employability prospects.

    Regardless of length of stay, all individuals residing in Australia as international students should be afforded similar protections and facilities to permanent residents if they are to maximize their opportunities to be part of the Australian educational system

    There are many economic benefits in the international student business. Many institutions have learnt how profitable it is to offer student housing, often at quite high rates. Commonwealth-grant students pay phenomenally high fees, and do not always get the basics that permanent residents can take for granted.

    If students as temporary residents are invited to study here, many choosing to come to Australia to enhance employability options, then there should be an expectation of maintaining a minimum living standard, affordable housing and a chance to escape from pre-occupation with scraping by whilst undertaking study, which though enjoyable for many if stress levels are containable, can represent an unacceptable burden, resulting often in compromised study outcomes.

    I support any position that is aimed at equalizing the position of these students in society for the duration of their temporary residence here. Issues of parity and equity are paramount, as well as safety in travelling to and from educational institutions, often late at night.

    Press coverage of violence and discrimination, including towards international students and others speaks for itself. Australia’s international reputation as a safe and enjoyable place to live and study is at stake without proper protection.

    The issue of inequality with concession public transport has been on my agenda to discuss with educational institutions. Indeed some time ago I had direct dialogue with Melbourne University personnel on this and related issues.

    Though I have not had a chance to return to this particular topic for a while, it remains on my endless list of advocacy issues to attend to.

    I firmly believe that more inclusive policies should be adopted and cultural attitudes are changed.

    Rajat, permanent residency options are always influenced by course of study and occupational demand that that picture changes from time to time. Those who are eligible under current rules and apply under given conventions are always successful, but changes in the economy have influenced rule changes.

    On all other matters I really do believe that a fairer deal is required for temporary residents.




  7. Madeleine – The small number of AusAid students do already get extensive government support; indeed, more than domestic students get though of course as you note they don’t have family support here. But for the other international students they are here primarily to pursue a commercial relationship with profit-seeking education providers (and include the public universities in this category, the difference with the private institutions being only in how the surpluses are spent). It is in the commercial interests of the providers to try to ensure that students have a satisfactory overall experience. But if the students can’t afford to be here they should not come.


  8. Andrew

    I have supported in a very practical way at a very grassroots level numerous AUSAid Students. I may one day write a book of my direct experiences.

    I speak as a member of the community who could not better understand what these students face. My connection with them occurred purely by change, but as I got to know more about the disadvantages that they face, so I became more interested in the categorization of classes of people that may be inappropriate.

    In my book, anyone residing in Australia short or long term needs to have fundamental support systems and recognization of the cultural divide, integration problems.

    Have you been into the homes of any of these students and their families, helping them rid unaffordable rented accommodation of pests and infestations, living in cramped conditions?
    Have you ever tried to get by a course of study without text books of your own?

    Have you loved in under-developed countries?

    Do you appreciate what Australia’s trade agreements are with those whose mature-aged student population are enticed over because there are reciprocal benefits enjoyed by both countries involved? Have you ever arrived in a country unprepared for the culture shocks and other settling impediments that are to be faced? I could go on.

    Have you walked in their shoes?

    How discriminatory your comments sound. Wish I could stay to chat, but I am occupied doing something else and found my blog on your site in passing whilst looking for something else.




  9. Madeleine – The international education industry isn’t built on trade agreements, though there are various other minor government-to-government agreements concerning education. There has been a problem with shonky agents misrepresenting institutions and other aspects of Australian education. But for the reasons stated above, I still view the material and emotional well-being of international students as a private issue which is primarily the responsibility of the students themselves and the educational institutions involved, though of course any other assistance such as that you have provided is welcome. While this is ‘discrimination’, not all discrimination is unjustifiable. Just as I cannot turn up in China, India, Malaysia, etc and expect the locals to pay for my needs, people from those countries cannot turn up here and expect the locals to pay for their needs.


  10. Madeleine, you might be right, but why do you expect the taxpayer to foot the bill?

    One key belief of classical liberalism is that civil society is a great way to mobilise the resources of the community to address social problems – and much better than government.

    Have you thought of setting up a charitable society, or is it simply easier just to say ‘The government should do something’ and expect (already overburdened) others foot the bill?

    If you did try, you’d find that one reason why mobilising civil society is hard is because the expectation that the government will step in is now hard-wired in people’s brains. As a result, the poor among the overseas students, none of whom have a vote, will continue to do it tough.

    ‘Have you loved in under-developed countries?’

    Well Andrew, have you?? 🙂


  11. Maddy – word for the wise…
    Do you know why tv commercials are 15 to 30 secs long? Cause that’s the optimal attention spans for us humans. These great big long rants of yours are too clunky, too academic. I can barely get past the first para.
    But whatever, none of it answers the basic premise…if int’l students don’t like it, bugger off and get your paws outta my pocket. It’s really that simple.
    As for loving in under developed countries, I have a general rule that I never venture to places where no one wishes to live. It’s like the SBS, it’s tax payers money that goes to remind people of places where they don’t wanna live. What a waste!


  12. Nonsense on stilts indeed.
    If you have concerns like Madeline then join or form an association of like-minded people and do whatever you think needs to be done to help. If you make a case even some of the sceptics on this site may assist with finance or personal services but keep legalistic stuff about human rights out of it.


  13. It is clear to me that blogging on the site with “unlike-minded” people is a waste of time.

    It is also clear that serious thinking people who don’t fit the criteria of being able to catch the usual 30-sec attention span don’t belong here.

    For the record though

    Yes I have lived in third world countries

    Yes I have seen a great deal of suffering

    Beyond being citizens of this country, we are all citizens of the world.

    In terms of human rights, whether people are temporary residents, refugees or would-be-refugees, or those simply facing disadvantage of one kind or another, I believe that the community as a whole as some responsibility to fellow humans regardless of race creed of background.

    In terms of international students, I have gained real insights at grassroots, have offered my services voluntarily, and share the views of many including Simon Marginson that better support all round for these groups, and especially those invited here on Commonwealth stipends who come from disadvantaged backgrounds should be accommodated at tax payers’ expense to enjoy their stay, maximize their study opportunities and contribute to our multicultural society as equals not second class citizens.

    No point going any further than this in the discussion bearing in mind the 30-second attention span of the bloggers participating.

    Happy blogging



  14. Andrew Norton

    As the site owner these comments are directed to you. I assume you are responsible also for moderating policies.

    In some ways I am surprised to find myself here, but your posting regarding comments policy discovered in passing attracted my attention. I would have answered on that page but could not see no comment box facility.

    I don’t know who you are or anything about your background.

    Nevertheless I thought some direct feedback from a new blogger interested in policy matters, I felt some constructive feedback might or might not be of benefit to you and those who blog on your site.

    I have already dealt with derogatory comments about appropriate blog length. I have no problem with negative feedback and certainly have developed a broad set of shoulders.

    There is little that either surprises or phases me.

    I have no quarrel with differences of opinion either, provided they are expressed in an appropriate manner, devoid of derogatory remarks, expletives, patronizing comment and other exclusionary remarks.

    Healthy debate especially about social policy is important and necessary. We need to respect differences in each other’s views and the way7 in which these are expressed.

    I am not concerned about myself, but as someone in the community with what your followers may regard as having and “over-developed sense of social responsibility” with considerable grassroots experience of connecting with marginalized communities and their perspectives, I am concerned about online “blog space” that may have the unintended consequences of having a damaging effect on would-be participants experimenting with exploring digital social media communication.

    I have made two or three postings on your site, and effectively withdrew except for this post, not because I could not “stand the heat in the kitchen” but because the communication of your followers appeared to progressively deteriorate to unacceptable levels of discourtesy, stopping to derogatory remarks that appeared to be more appropriate for exchange in private for those who enjoy that sort of thing.\

    My view is that regardless who owns a site, it is publicly available and therefore can potentially harm vulnerable experimenters of social media options in order to form connections with others, that there should be standardized, acceptable practices that by all means invite exchange of a wide range of ideas, but at the same time ensure that the experience is a comfortable one for people from all kinds of cultural, backgrounds, persuasions, and so on.

    After three postings and onlooker observation of the manner in which dialogue progressively detonated, I have felt uncomfortable on this site not because others disagreed with my viewpoints, but because I believe that any owner or hoster of an open “blog site” has certain inherent responsibilities to the community at large, regardless of whether their personal beliefs allow for inclusive acceptance of all sorts of perspectives and backgrounds

    In that context I am pleased about your posting indicating that you would take a harsh view of unacceptable online conduct on your site. That is as it should be. A little late perhaps, and some of the unacceptable comments are still on your site, despite your warning about what won’t be tolerated in these words:

    “I think comments can add a lot to a blog – provided that they are civil, relevant, and reasonably concise. Since the bad can easily drive out the good in comments, I’m going to take a hard line against those who use bad language, abuse other bloggers, digress too far from the thread’s subject, ramble, or engage in prolonged debates. Comments that breach the policy will be deleted, and the offending bloggers put in moderation or banned completely.”

    I commend you for taking this stance. I found some of the comments on your site offensive, not at all in the context of responses to my publicly stated views, but rather because unrestrained progressively abusive and derogatory comments more appropriate for private exchange then a public online blog have highlighted the potential to offend others, more especially those who are vulnerable, come from other cultural backgrounds.

    Please don’t misunderstand. Healthy debate is a positive thing.

    I just feel that a no-nonsense, harsh and swift action needs to be taken by those who participate in digital communication, host blog sites or won them.

    As to moderation policies, unless people overstep the limits of courtesy and inclusiveness, or else clumsily step on the sensitivities of others, these should be liberally interpreted by hosters or owners of any blog site.

    There are in fact implicit responsibilities vested in those opening up dialogue on a public site.

    I don’t care if your followers think that I have exceeded the 30-second intention span that they have advocated would be a suitable target for would-be bloggers.

    I do not intend to respond to their retorts on this site. But I will make my views publicly available elsewhere.

    An attitude of due diligence is warranted.


    Madeleine Kingston


  15. Madeleine – Some commenters are not always as polite as I would prefer, but my comments threads are very tame by the standards of the blogosphere. The comments policy was designed to give fair warning that I would not tolerate the verbal wars that go on at other blogs, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to police the occasional cheap shot. Rebecca has apologised for the unnecessarily rude tone of her comment above, which is good.


  16. Marginson builds his case for citizenship rights for international students on the tragic murder of Nitin Garg. But the late Mr Garg wasn’t a student but a graduate and was a permanent, not temporary resident.


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