The Internationalisation of Australia's Higher Education System: Trading Away Human Rights


  • Jacob Debets Melbourne Law School - JD Graduate and Research Assistant


The commoditisation and internationalisation of Australia’s education system has been so far-reaching that Australia’s economic stability, and the future of higher education institutes, are now largely dependent on the continued enrolment of overseas students into their courses. This paper critically analyses the international education industry, demonstrating that the current policy approach adopted by governments and education providers is fundamentally incompatible with Australia’s human rights obligations towards international students and fundamentally unsustainable if left unaccompanied by human rights principles. It begins with a history of Australia’s neoliberal approach to international education and how this approach has made international students vulnerable to significant and pervasive human rights abuses by both private and public actors. It then argues that the 2009 Indian student protests saga was at its core a revolt against this state of affairs and that responses to this crisis by government were ineffective because they fell back on market principles. It then discusses recent developments in the higher education sector and the 7-Eleven underpayments scandal, before making the case for restructuring Australia’s international education sector in alignment with its human rights obligations. 

Author Biography

Jacob Debets, Melbourne Law School - JD Graduate and Research Assistant

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and research assistant from Melbourne Law School. He will be commencing as a trainee lawyer in 2019 for Arnold Bloch Leibler, in their Workplace Advisory team.


A Articles/Books/Reports

Australian Education International, International Graduate Outcomes and Employer Perceptions (Commonwealth of Australia, 2010)

Australian Government, ‘Australia’s National Framework for Human Rights: National Action Plan’ (2004) <


Australian Government, National Strategy for International Education 2025 (2016) <>

Australian Human Rights Commission, Principles to Promote and Protect the Human Rights of International Students (2012) <>

Australian Universities Quality Agency, ‘Good Practice Principles for English Language Proficiency for International Students in Australian Universities’ (March 2009) < Good_Practice_Principles.pdf>

Baas, Michiel, ‘Victims or Profiteers? Issues of Migration, Racism and Violence among Indian Students in Melbourne’ [2014] (2) Asia Pacific Viewpoint 212

Babacan, Hurriyet et al, ‘The Community Safety of International Students in Melbourne: A Scoping Study’ (Institute for Community, Ethnicity and Policy Alternatives, Victoria University, February 2010) <>

Baird, Bruce, ‘Strong, Simpler, Smarter ESOS: Supporting International Students’

(Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2010) < SOS_REview_Final_Report_Feb_2010_pdf.pdf>

Beeson, Mark, and Ann Firth, ‘Neoliberalism as a Political Rationality: Australian Public Policy since the 1980s’ (1998) 34(3) Journal of Sociology 215

Birrell, Bob, and Ernest Healy, ‘The February 2010 Reforms and the International Student Industry’ (2010) 18(1) People and Place 65

Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement, ‘Strength through Global Leadership and Engagement: US Higher Education in the 21st Century’ (American Council on Education, November 2011) <>

Burdon, Peter D, and Mary Heath, ‘Academic Resistance to the Neoliberal University’ (2015) 23(2) Legal Education Review 379

Campbell, Iain, Martina Boese and Joo-Cheong Tham, ‘Inhospitable Workplaces? International Students and Paid Work in Food Services’ (2016) 51(3) Australian Journal of Social Issues 279 <>

Chirwa, Danwood Mzikenge, ‘Doctrine of State Responsibility as a Potential Means of Holding Private Actors Accountable for Human Rights’ (2004) 5 Melbourne Journal of International Law 1

Deloitte Access Economics, ‘Broader Implications from a Downturn in International Students’ (Universities Australia, 30 June 2011) <>

Deloitte Access Economics, ‘The Value of International Education to Australia’ (Australian Government, 2016) <>

Douglass, John, and Richard Edelstein, ‘The Global Market for International Students: American Perspectives’ [2015] (59) International Higher Education <>

Education and Employment References Committee, Parliament of Australia (Senate), A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders (March 2016)

Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee, Commonwealth of Australia (Senate), Welfare of International Students (2009)

Fair Work Ombudsman, Commonwealth of Australia, ‘A Report of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Inquiry into 7-Eleven: Identifying and Addressing the Drivers of Non-Compliance in the 7-Eleven Network’ (April 2016)

Forbes-Mewett, Helen et al, ‘Australian University International Student Finances’ (2009) 22(2) Higher Education Policy 141

Garcia, Frank J, ‘The Global Market and Human Rights: Trading Away the Human Rights Principle’ (1999) 25 Brooklyn Journal of International Law 51

Graycar, Adam, Racism and the Tertiary Student Experience in Australia (Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, 2010) < ublications/tertiary_students/Graycar_racism_tertiary2010.pdf>

Harry, Keith, Higher Education Through Open and Distance Learning (Routledge, 2002)

Human Rights Law Resource Centre, ‘Briefing Paper on Key Human Rights Issues in Australia’ (July 2009) <>

Jakubowicz, Andrew, and Devaki Monani, ‘International Student Futures in Australia: A Human Rights Perspective on Moving Forward to Real Action’ (The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, 2010)

Jakubowicz, Andrew, and Devaki Monani, ‘Mapping Progress : Human Rights and International Students in Australia’ (2015) 7(3) Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal 61

Jeannie, Rea, ‘Critiquing Neoliberalism in Australian Universities’ (2016) 58(2) Australian Universities’ Review 1

Johnson, Benjamin, Patrick Kavanagh and Kevin Mattson, Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement (Psychology Press, 2003)

Knight, Michael, ‘Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program 2011’ (Australian Government, 30 June 2011) <>

Kolodizner, Irina, ‘The Charter of Rights Debate: A Battle of the Models’ (2009) 16 Australian International Law Journal 219

Larsen, Jacqueline Joudo, Jason Payne and Adam Tomison, Crimes Against International Students in Australia, 2005–09 (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2011) <>

Lo, Vai Io, ‘Before Competition and beyond Complacency: The Internationalisation of Legal Education in Australia’ (2012) 22 Legal Education Review 3

Lyndon Megarrity, ‘Regional Goodwill, Sensibly Priced: Commonwealth Policies towards Colombo Plan Scholars and Private Overseas Students, 1945–1972’ (2007) 38(129) Australian Historical Studies 88

Marginson, Simon, ‘Nation-Building Universities in a Global Environment: The Case of Australia’ (2002) 43(3) Higher Education 409

Marginson, Simon, ‘Including the Other: Regulation of the Human Rights of Mobile Students in a Nation-Bound World’ (2012) 63(4) Higher Education 497

Marginson, Simon et al, International Student Security (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Mason, Gail, ‘Violence against Indian Students in Australia: A Question of Dignity’ (2010) 21(3) Current Issues in Criminal Justice 461

Mason, Gail, ‘Naming the “R” Word in Racial Victimization: Violence against Indian Students in Australia’ (2012) 18(1) International Review of Victimology 39

Megarrity, Lyndon, ‘A Highly-Regulated “Free Market”: Commonwealth Policies on Private Overseas Students from 1974 to 2005’ (2007) 51(1) Australian Journal of Education 39

Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research, ‘Poverty Lines: Australia (December Quarter 2017)’ (University of Melbourne, 18 April 2017) < verty-Lines-Australia-December-Quarter-2017.pdf>

NAFSA: Association of International Educators, ‘Restoring US Competitiveness for International Students and Scholars’ (June 2006)

< Policy/restoring_u.s.pdf>

New South Wales and Independent Commission Against Corruption, ‘Learning the Hard Way: Managing Corruption Risks Associated with International Students at Universities in NSW’ (2015)

Norton, Andrew, and Ittima Cherastidtham, ‘University Fees: What Students Pay in Deregulated Markets’ (Grattan Institute, 2015) <>

Nyland, C, H Forbes-Mewett and S Marginson, ‘The International Student Safety Debate: Moving beyond Denial’ (2010) 29(1) Higher Education Research & Development 89

Nyland, Chris, Helen Forbes-Mewett and Charmine E J Hartel, ‘Governing the International Student Experience: Lessons from the Australian International Education Model’ (2013) 12(4) Academy of Management Learning & Education 656

Otto, Dianne, ‘From Reluctance to Exceptionalism’ (2001) 26(5) Alternative Law Journal 219

Overseas Student Ombudsman, Annual Report (2014–15) <>

Productivity Commission, ‘International Education Services: Research Paper’ (Australian Government, April 2015)

Reilly, Alex, ‘Protecting Vulnerable Migrant Workers: The Case of International Students’ (2012) 25 Australian Journal of Labour Law


Robertson, Shanthi, ‘Cash Cows, Backdoor Migrants, or Activist Citizens? International Students, Citizenship, and Rights in Australia’ (2011) 34(12) Ethnic and Racial Studies 2192

Robertson, Shanthi, ‘The Production of the Indian Student: Regimes and Imaginaries of Migration, Education, Labour, Citizenship and Class’ (2015) 7(3) Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1

Rueckert, Caroline M, Conceptions of Care in International Higher Education in Australia (Queensland University of Technology, 2017)

Smith, David Livingstone, ‘Dehumanization, Essentialism, and Moral Psychology’ (2014) 9(11) Philosophy Compass 814

Sovic, Silvia, and Margo Blythman, International Students Negotiating Higher Education: Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2012)

Stewart, Andrew, and Rosemary Owens, ‘Experience or Exploitation? Report for the Fair Work Ombudsman’ (Adelaide Law School, 2013)


United Nations: Office of the High Commissioner, Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework (United Nations, 2011)


University of Melbourne, ‘The University of Melbourne Strategic Plan 2015–2020: Growing Esteem’ <>

Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission, Annual Report (2008/09) <>

Victorian Ombudsman, ‘Investigation into How Universities Deal with International Students’ (Victoria Government, October 2011) <>

Woodfield, Steve, ‘Trends in International Student Mobility: A Comparison of National and Institutional Policy Responses in Denmark, Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands’ (Kingston University, December 2009)

< l_Policy_Responses_in_D.pdf>

B Cases

Al Ferdous v Minister for Immigration & Citizenship [2010] FMCA 824

DPP v Caratozzolo [2009] VSC 305 (29 July 2009)

Fair Work Ombudsman v Bosen Pty Ltd and Others (Industrial) Magistrates Court of Victoria Y03727156

Fair Work Ombudsman v Primeage Pty Ltd & Ors [2015] FCCA 139

Hussein v The Queen [2010] VSCA 257 (4 October 2010)

R v Wong (2010) [2010] NSWSC 171 (Unreported, 10 March 2010)

Smallwood v Ergo Asia Pty Ltd [2014] FWC 964

C Legislation

Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW)

Anti-Discrimination Act 1996 (NT)

Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld)

Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas)

Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT)

Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers and Other Measures) Act 2010 (Cth)

Education Services for Overseas Students Legislation Amendment (Tuition Protection Service and Other Measures) Act 2012 (Cth)

Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment (Tuition Protection Service) Act 2012 (Cth)

Education Services for Overseas Students (TPS Levies) Act 2012 (Cth)

Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA)

Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic)

Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (WA)

Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth)

D Treaties/International Materials

Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, opened for signature 10 December 1984, [1989] ATS 21 (entered into force 7 September 1989)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, opened for signature 18 December 1979, [1983] ATS 9 (entered into force 27 August 1983)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, opened for signature 7 March 1966, [1975] ATS 40 (entered into force 30 October 1975)

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, opened for signature 30 March 2007, [2008] ATS 12 (entry into force 16 August 2008)

Convention on the Rights of the Child, opened for signature 20 November 20 November 1989, [1991] ATS 4 (entered into force 16 January 1991)

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, opened for signature 28 July 1951, 189 UNTS 150 (entered into force 22 April 1954)

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, [1980] ATS 23 (entered into force 13 November 1980)

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, [1976] ATS 5 (entered into force 10 March 1976)

E Other

AAP, ‘Rudd’s Plea: We’re Not Racists’, Sydney Morning Herald (online), 1 June 2009 <>

AAP, ‘I Was Paid 47c an Hour: 7-Eleven Worker’, (online), 15 February 2016 <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Participation in Education: Overseas Students in Higher Education’ (20 June 1995) < 4fd4d0af435ad4ca2570ec007521f0!OpenDocument>

Australian Education Union, International Education Crisis and the Failure of Private Providers (February 2010) <>

Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Human Rights of International Students a Major Issue’ (Media Release, 5 November 2009) <>

Choudaha, Rahul, ‘How China Plans to Become a Global Force in Higher Education’, The Guardian (online), 13 October 2015 <>

Citizenship and Immigration – Government of Canada, Notice — New Regulations for International Students Finalized (2 December 2014) <>

Corones, Stephen, ‘Consumer Guarantees and the Supply of Educational Services by Higher Education Providers’ (2012) 35(1) UNSW Law Journal 1

Council of Australian Governments, 2010–2014: International Students Strategy for Australia <>

Croucher, Gwilym et al (eds), The Dawkins Revolution: 25 Years on (Melbourne University Press, 2013)

Das, Sushi, ‘College Collapses Spark Fresh Probe’ The Age, 17 August 2010


Das, Sushi, ‘“Sham” Colleges Operating with Impunity’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online), 25 October 2008 <>

Debets, Jacob, ‘Bursting the Law School Bubble’, De Minimis (online), 3 April 2016 <>

Department of Education and Training, Export Income in to Australia from International Education Activity in 2016–17 (Research Snapshot) (Australian Government, December 2017) <>

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s Top 10 Goods and Services Exports (Australian Government, 2016–17) <>

Doherty, Ben, and Paul Millar, ‘Indian Anger Boils Over’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online), 3 June 2009 <>

Ferguson, Adele, and Sarah Dunckhert, ‘7-Eleven’s Wage Fraud Sparks $170 Billion Blow Back’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online), 27 August 2016 <>

Four Corners, 7-Eleven: The Price of Convenience (30 August 2015) ABC News <>

Four Corners, Degrees of Deception (20 April 2015) ABC News


Gomez, Jerry, ‘Student Visa Fraud Out of Control But DIBP Still Refuses to Act against Unregistered Education Brokers’ on Migration Alliance ( 21 January 2015) <>

Goodman, Ryan, ‘Sociological Theory Insights into International Human Rights Law’ (Unpublished presentation, Institute for International Law and Justice, Legal Theory Colloquium: Interpretation and Judgment in International Law, NYU Law School, 3 April 2008)

‘Government Launches Inquiry into Indian Student Attacks’, SBS News (online), 2 June 2009 <>

Hare, Julie, ‘Number of Australians Studying Abroad Doubles’, The Australian (online), 8 June 2016 <>

ICEF Monitor, The State of International Student Mobility in 2015 (5 November 2015) <>

Johns-Wickberg, Nick, and Inga Ting, Students in Detention? Life Gets Harder for International Scholars (24 September 2010) Crikey <>

Johnston, Matt Wade and Chris, ‘Rudd Steps in as Tensions Rise over Attacks on Students’, The Age (online), 30 May 2009 <>

Koleth, Elsa, ‘Overseas Students: Immigration Policy Changes 1997–May 2010’ (Parliament of Australia, 18 June 2010)

< y_Library/pubs/BN/0910/OverseasStudents>

Levitt, Stewart, Submission No 61 to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, The Impact of Australian Temporary Working Visa Programs on the Australian Labour Market and on Temporary Work Visa Holders, 18 September 2015

McCarthy, Emma, “We Forgot How Vulnerable We Were”: Foreign Students Struggle to Find Homes (14 April 2015) Crikey <>

Millar, Paul, ‘Indian Students March in Protest against Attacks’, The Age (online), 31 May 2009 <>

Rost, Michaela, Submission to Senate Education, Employment & Workplace Relations Committee, Inquiry into Welfare of International Students 2009, September 2009

Sales, Leigh, ‘“I Would Call Myself a Modern Century Slave,” Says Former 7-11 Worker’, ABC News (online), 3 September 2015 <>

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Slattery, Luke, ‘Too Many University Students Spoil the Product’, The Australian (online), 23 April 2016 <>

Steen, Frederika Submission No 131 to Joint Standing Committee on Migration, Inquiry into Immigration Detention in Australia, 3 September 2008

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Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association, Submission to Michael Knight, Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program, 15 April 2011

Tham, Joo-Cheong, ‘7-Eleven Is the Tip of the Iceberg in Worker Exploitation. So Who’s Turning a Blind Eye?’, The Guardian (online), 12 May 2016 <>

Tham, Joo-Cheong, Submission No 3 (Supplementary Submission) to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, The Impact of Australian Temporary Working Visa Programs on the Australian Labour Market and on Temporary Work Visa Holders, 16 September 2015

Tham, Joo-Cheong, Submission No 3 to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, The Impact of Australian Temporary Working Visa Programs on the Australian Labour Market and on Temporary Work Visa Holders, 29 April 2015

Toft, Klaus, Adele Ferguson and Sarah Danckert, ‘7-Eleven: A Sweatshop on Every Corner’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online), 29 August 2015


United Voice, ‘International Students Cop Melbourne’s Worst Paid Jobs’ (Media Release, 17 October 2013)

Universities Australia, More Australian Students See the Value of Study Abroad <>

Verghis, Sharon, ‘Australia: Attacks on Indian Students Raise Racism Cries’, Time (online), 10 September 2009 <,8599,1921482,00.html>.

Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission, Submission to Victorian Overseas Students Taskforce (24 October 2008)

Wallace, Duncan, ‘Melbourne Law School and the Politics of Education’, De Minimis (online), 1 March 2015 <>

Wells, Jamelle, ‘21 Years’ Jail for “Reign of Sexual Terror”’, ABC News (online), 16 July 2010 <>