Row over exclusion of international students from union poll

Monash union election called off at last minute following criticism

September 15, 2019
Source: Getty

A Melbourne student union has backed away from an election ploy that would have disenfranchised international candidates, in a case exemplifying Australian students’ sometimes paradoxical treatment of their Chinese peers.

The Monash Student Union (Monsu) at Monash University’s Caulfield campus said that it had postponed this month’s election due to what it calls “unforeseen circumstances”. The move followed uproar over Monsu’s eleventh-hour imposition of a rule restricting candidacy to students eligible to work 22 hours a week.

This would have excluded international students, who comprise about half of Caulfield’s enrolments. Visa rules restrict them to 20 hours’ weekly work.

Monsu did not respond to requests for comment. But in a statement issued by the university, it said that the rule change had not been designed to reduce students’ eligibility: “It was in recognition that being a member of Monsu is a considerable weekly commitment.”

Ayush Tarway, president of the International Students’ Service at Monash’s larger Clayton campus, said that he could only speculate about Monsu’s motivations. But the timing of the rule change, on the day that nominations were due, was “suspicious”.

He said that the opposition party at Caulfield included a lot of international candidates, mostly Chinese.

National Union of Students president Desiree Cai said that no other student organisation had stipulated minimum working hours for its executive body. She said that it was hard to interpret Monsu’s move as anything other than an exclusionary tactic.

Chinese blocs have raised eyebrows by dominating student unions at the universities of Sydney and Melbourne. Ms Cai said that it was natural for international students to take an increasingly prominent role in student representation, given their burgeoning numbers.

“There’s a view pushed by certain arms of society that we should be worried specifically about Chinese students,” she said. “That’s quite a discriminatory view. Students should be allowed to participate if they’re keen.”

She acknowledged concerns about “foreign governments infiltrating our universities”, but said that there was little evidence of it.

University of Melbourne cultural studies scholar Fran Martin said that Chinese consulates had funded students’ cultural events in previous years, but the Chinese Students and Scholars Association now appeared to be turning down embassy money to avoid perceptions of political interference.

Dr Martin, who is researching the experiences of 50 Chinese students at eight Australian universities, said that none of the participants in her study was politically active. Many had been warned by their parents not to get involved in any sort of politics, including pro-China politics.

“It’s seen as potentially dangerous and just not a good idea,” she said. “Patriotism is certainly a thing in people’s hearts, but not political activism.”

Dr Martin said that when Chinese students had protested over lecturers’ depiction of Taiwan as a separate country, it had been reported as a threat to free speech – to the bewilderment of the students, who responded that they were exercising free speech.

She said that a July incident at the University of Queensland, when mainland Chinese students had tried to drown out pro-Hong Kong autonomy activists with a ghetto blaster playing the Chinese national anthem, had sparked concern.

“People who saw that footage might assume all Chinese students are like that, when what we’ve seen is a couple of guys with a boom box,” she said. “I’m not saying we should discount it, but it certainly seems to be a minority pursuit.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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