Not being able to attend classes, make use of lab facilities and other university resources, and a lack of face-to-face learning and mentoring are some of the reasons international students say they're unhappy about paying full tuition fees for virtual learning during the COVID-19 crisis. Many fear it's affecting their outcomes.
Keerthana Muralidharan is currently undertaking her Master's degree in data science from Monash University.
"I pay $28,000 in tuition fees per semester for my course, which has gone online now. The same subject was available as an online course for $15,000," she says.
"I could have done that online course for a comparatively less fee comfortably from my home in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. The main idea of coming all the way to Australia was to explore a top-class campus experience that is not available any more after classes went online - that's not what we paid for."
Many students SBS Tamil talked to spoke of "ineffectual e-learning courses" and questioned why they should continue to pay the same price for them now that they're online.
Keerthana says that no online session can match a classroom experience.
"As everything has gone digital, the style of assignments we choose depends only on the availability of software. When we select a topic for our project and if the software is not available for that topic, we are asked to pick a flexible subject whereas we do not gain any knowledge by just completing the assignments."
She says the scenario would have been completely different in an on-campus study environment.
"The best part of face-to-face learning was the interaction with teachers and group activity discussions which are completely gone now.
We couldn't even pause an online lecture to raise doubts for more clarity about the subject.
"Online group activities are incredibly difficult to coordinate as my teammates are in different parts of the world," she says.
University fee reduction
"During the time of a challenging financial situation, a small per cent of fee reduction would have been really helpful," says Pranav Karthik, a manufacturing student from Swinburne University of Technology who tested positive for COVID and quarantined for 14 days.
"Those home quarantine days were my toughest time in Australia as I couldn't even go for my part-time work in the supermarket which was my major income to support my studies and my stay in Australia."
"While a few universities have offered fee discounts, my university didn’t provide a concession in the course fee though we appealed via the student's union.
To be honest, the PowerPoint presentation classes are not effective, and I struggle to stay motivated through the lecture. It's definitely not worth the money.
“Certain issues like server problems, system errors and software availability would have been taken care of by the university if the classes were not virtual,” says Monisha*, an architecture student from Melbourne.
“I recently spent $800 dollars to fix my laptop issues and I had to buy a software for my course, which was very expensive. These additional expenses cause strain in my financial commitments.”
Online learning's effect on creativity
Monisha says that online learning is taking a toll on a student's creativity, too.
“We used to come up with some extraordinary designs with hand sketches in the classroom and now the virtual designs are not as great as they should be. When we present a model there is no clarity in the tutor's feedback due to lack of effective communication during an online session.
"We used to get a lot of ideas from other students during a group activity in college - while group activity is a big deal in a virtual environment as we have to seek appointments from our mates in different parts of the world for a common timing.”
“I used to spend three hours in the college library prior to my classes to take reference for my designs but now we don’t use any resources from the college. Still, we must pay the same tuition fees which is upsetting,” she says.
Laboratory facilities unavailable
Thiru Gnanam, a data science student from Monash University says that his university could at least consider omitting the lab utility fees while students cannot use them.
"With all the sessions running smoothly as per the schedule, we understand that the tutors are working really hard to provide us the classroom standard via online sessions. Our only concern is if the management could cut off the lab utility fee from our tuition, we could save some money during this time when even a single penny matters.
I am in my final semester completing my final project, which will be my portfolio to seek a job. Unfortunately, I had to do such a crucial project with limited resources available online confined to my home which I fear would affect my prospects.
Ashok*, a Masters in engineering management student from RMIT University expresses his frustration over the time consumed in online learning.
"My workload has been doubled as we spend many hours in front of the computer screens even after the online session is over as we must summarise that day’s session," he says.
"Studying lessons by confining ourselves to four walls with no social interaction is stressful.
"A lack of networking, which is a key tool in seeking a job, is the main impact of online learning as we don’t get to meet our college mates, seniors, tutors or anybody in regard with our course. We came here all the way from India for some great exposure and when that is not happening, we requested the college management to reduce 20 per cent in the fees. The management couldn’t provide the concession as they, too, were facing challenges due to the pandemic."
What do the Universities say?
A Monash University spokesperson said that they will not be offering discounts as they have heavily invested in infrastructure, technology and support surrounding the online sessions.
“We will not be providing discounts on our education as the outcomes of a Monash online degree are equivalent to that of an on-campus degree. We understand that there may be differences in the student experience, however, we are doing everything to ensure all our students remain engaged in their learning. We have offered, and are continuing to offer, a variety of financial support to assist our international students at this time.”
Swinburne University of Technology said it's also providing support.
"Working with our philanthropic partners and staff, we have created Swinburne Student Emergency Fund, which is providing much-needed financial support for international students experiencing financial difficulties. In light of our expertise in the area, we have decided not to refund or reduce fees, however, we continue to work with students concerned about their ability to pay their fees and offer our support on a case-by-case basis," a spokesperson said.
RMIT University points to the fact it has expanded access to mental health care and made investments to provide additional financial hardship support and technology grants.
“The well being of our students remains our first priority and Student Services Amenity Fees are being directed to areas that need it most as we continue to work closely with the RMIT University Student Union. With a focus on student progression we also have worked to minimise disruptions wherever we can, prioritising safe campus access for labs and studios in line with local restrictions. Rather than a direct reduction in student fees, we have reallocated resources toward our core purpose of teaching and research."