University bribery claims spark fears of anti-Asian feeling

SYDNEY, Australia, AP

University officials fear claims that some colleges accepted bribes or lowered standards to pass foreign students may fuel anti-Asian sentiment and endanger a vital export industry. Universities have been hit by a spate of allegations that foreign students who barely speak English were being given passing grades at many schools because they paid high fees.

The main opposition party and some academics this week claimed some of the country’s top universities had been offered millions of dollars to ensure full-fee paying students got better grades.

Foreign students, who pay high fees, are a major source of income for Australian universities, which have been hit by government funding cuts.

IDP Education Australia, which represents the country’s universities abroad, said there were about 158,000 foreign students in Australia. The students pay annual fees worth A$3.2 billion (US$1.8 billion), making education the nation’s eighth largest export industry.

Universities chiefs worry the claims of preferential treatment for foreigners may reawaken the sort of anti-Asian sentiment that overshadowed the country’s higher education system in 1998 after the rise of the right-wing One Nation Party led by Pauline Hanson.

“It can fuel that sort of anti Asia sentiment which is something we want to avoid at all costs,” Australian Vice-Chancellor’s Committee spokesman Greg Ellis told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

One Nation campaigned in state and federal elections on a platform which included opposition to Asian immigration, Australian foreign aid and the country’s membership of the United Nations.

Australian university recruiting offices throughout Asia had been getting more calls over the bribery issue than they received at the height of the One Nation campaign, Ellis said.

Before it was derailed by internal bickering last year, One Nation grabbed 23 percent of the vote in a 1998 state election and 8.4 percent in that year’s federal poll.

The Australian Vice Chancellor’s Committee and federal Education Minister David Kemp dismissed the claims of bribery and special treatment and attempted to reassure foreign students that Australian universities were among the best in the world. “These claims are unsubstantiated and have the potential to seriously undermine the well-earned international reputation of Australian universities,” they said in a joint statement.

Preliminary results of an independent survey of university professors released earlier this month revealed that foreign students were being given preferential treatment, including granting degrees to some who had failed courses. Poor English skills were also cited as a problem.

Most foreign students in Australia are Asian, with the largest contingent from Indonesia, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea, according to IDP Education Australia.

Overseas students pay an average of A$10,257 (US$5,841) per year for a university course. Australians pay an average A$4,360 (US$2,483).