Students protest against ‘predatory’ scholarship revocations

Swinburne abruptly terminates 30 per cent fee reductions for foreigners who fall foul of ‘gotcha’ clauses

September 22, 2023
A Tyrannosaurus rex takes a morning stroll with commuters in Hyde Park n Sydney, Australia to illustrate Students protest against ‘predatory’ scholarship revocations
Source: Getty images

International students at a Melbourne university lost their “scholarships” for receiving credit grades, and were given 10 days to pay thousands of dollars in unexpected extra fees.

Swinburne University of Technology said it was amending the rules for its “excellence” scholarships after dozens of overseas learners fell foul of requirements to maintain distinction averages.

Eligibility for the scholarships is automatically extended to applicants whose prior results equate to a grade point average (GPA) of at least 60, according to Swinburne’s website. But “further criteria”, available on enquiry, specify minimum GPAs of 70 or 80 to maintain eligibility.

Swinburne Student Union (SSU) said at least 60 and potentially hundreds of recipients had had their scholarships revoked after failing to achieve distinction averages, often in their initial semesters. SSU president Kishaun Aloysius said it was unrealistic to expect people to abruptly improve their academic performance while coping with a new country and an unfamiliar education system.

He said scholarships had been stripped from students with GPAs of 69.75, just a fraction below the required 70. “It seems almost predatory. [They are] setting up students for failure,” he said.

The scholarships reduce international students’ course fees by up to 30 per cent, usually equivalent to A$5,000 (£2,600) or more per semester. Mr Aloysius said the affected students, many “doing reasonably well” in their studies, were afforded no prior warning before receiving apparently automated emails requiring them to pay the difference.

“They’re not given an opportunity to improve their grades. Even if they were to keep up a better grade in the future, they would not be able to get the scholarships back,” he said.

Mr Aloysius said students who objected were passed between different Swinburne offices or referred back to the original emails. Most could not arrange meetings with Swinburne’s student advocacy service – which is not independent from university administration, unlike similar amenities at most Australian institutions – within the time allotted for payment.

Swinburne did not answer Times Higher Education’s questions seeking details of its scholarship schemes and support processes. But a spokeswoman said the university was “updating” the terms and conditions for 2024 international scholarships after “processes for advising students of changes fell short of expectations”.

She said Swinburne had also “commissioned an external review” to “assess whether students have adequate access to confidential, independent professional advice, advocacy and other support” when they lodge appeals or complaints.

Mr Aloysius said the scholarship cancellations had not been restricted to first-year students. The Age newspaper reported that continuing students had been cut off after experiencing serious illness or family bereavement.

The union successfully appealed against similar practices in 2022, but Mr Aloysius said the issue had recurred this year. In an unpublished submission to the Universities Accord, the SSU said the university had displayed “no leniency” to students affected by the “gotcha clauses” in its scholarship schemes.

The submission describes Swinburne as a “live case study on how a lack of executive accountability and unilateral university control erodes checks and balances”. It recommends that universities be banned from owning student services organisations funded by the compulsory Student Services and Amenities Fee.

Australian scholarships for international students have traditionally been used to attract students of high calibre or from poor regions. Since Covid-19, however, most universities have used scholarships as discounting mechanisms to boost enrolments. Swinburne has granted “scholarships” of up to 75 per cent in the past.

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Reader's comments (1)

Neo-liberal managerialism at its finest! Happy to traumatise people to keep the dollars rolling in...