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The email arrived without warning: Dani Nguyen’s scholarship at Swinburne University had been cut off.
The international student had long maintained a distinction average of 70 per cent, but her grades had slipped a fraction in recent weeks as her family was rocked by her aunt’s terminal cancer diagnosis, not long after Nguyen’s father also succumbed to the disease.
Swinburne student union president Kishaun Aloysius has been inundated by requests for help from his fellow students.Credit: Eddie Jim
What she didn’t realise was that, in falling below 70 per cent – to 69.75 per cent – she had triggered a little-known clause in her scholarship contract and a controversial Swinburne scheme nicknamed the “robo-debt of university” had kicked in automatically to cut her off.
If she didn’t pay the full fees, she could lose her place – and visa. Nguyen had just days to find thousands of dollars to stay in Australia.
Hundreds of international students have been stripped of their scholarships under the Swinburne policy, with only an email address to send appeals for reinstatement and no formal hearings. Some have been forced to leave Australia or change universities. Others are struggling to stay; working extra hours, owing family or even in debt to loan sharks.
“I’m desperate,” Nguyen said. “I need to borrow more money for this semester, then I will have to try to move universities. I made plans, a life here, thinking I could afford it [with] the scholarship.”
Her case is among a number reviewed by this masthead in which student marks had slipped by less than 1 per cent.
After Swinburne’s student union challenged a tranche of cancellations last year, the university quickly reversed them.
The university said at the time that it had “made an error in its interpretation of unsatisfactory process … which has no doubt caused distress for many students”.
But the policy has continued.
The student union has been inundated with another 60 or so students whose scholarships were cut on the first day of semester two this year. The extra thousands of dollars in fees were due just 10 days later.
Two sources at the university, speaking anonymously because they were not authorised to speak publicly, said they understood Swinburne had recouped millions of dollars from the scheme, though concerns about the method had been elevated to the university council.
“It’s robo-debt for scholarships, all run from this black-box email,” student union president Kishaun Aloysius said.
After questions from this masthead, Swinburne said it would “amend the terms and conditions for the 2024 international scholarships program”, improving the policy for future cohorts – though not ending it outright.
Swinburne has also commissioned “an external review” of the appeals process, including advocacy.
“We know that some of our international student scholarship recipients had difficulties maintaining their academic requirements, which was a condition of their scholarship, and the processes for advising students of changes fell short of expectations,” a spokeswoman said. “We have taken those learnings.”
Students said they didn’t realise that a clause in the fine print stating the university “reserves the right” to terminate a scholarship if a student’s mark falls below an 80 or 70 per cent average meant they would automatically be struck off.
Other universities have no such policy and many students only need a 60 per cent average to qualify for a scholarship – usually worth tens of thousands of dollars – in the first place.
Swinburne gave them just 10 days and very strict conditions to appeal via email only, though official university policy allows 21 days and usually offers students support and other options before termination.
The Swinburne policy has been described as ‘robo-debt for scholarships’.Credit: The Age
The university did not say why it had initiated the scheme, how much money it had recouped, or how many students were affected.
Many requests for appeal were knocked back, despite medical evidence of illness. One student, who had previously maintained a high distinction average of 80 per cent, was recovering from tuberculosis. Another suffered a serious mental health condition, but letters from his doctors were rejected. He was forced to move to another Melbourne university where he could get a scholarship.
“I tried to send all the documents through explaining why I’d had to go back home to see my aunt,” said Nguyen, whose aunt had died since she received the termination email in July. “I just got this automatic response back saying it wasn’t enough to overturn the decision.”
The official campus advocacy service for students is itself owned by the university and managed in part by Swinburne executives. In correspondence obtained by this masthead, advocates declined to assist with scholarship appeals, referring students, including Nguyen, back to the initial email.
“And that was just like a chatbot,” Nguyen said. “I don’t think a human even read my emails.”
A recent survey of about 100 affected students conducted by the union found some needed mental health support or had gone into debt because of the cuts. Students said they had previously been reassured by university staff they just had to pass all their subjects to keep the scholarship, which many called a “lifeline”.
Higher education expert Andrew Norton said many universities had offered more scholarships during the pandemic to back international students. But, now the students have largely returned to our shores, “they might be caught out with a lot less scholarships”.
The student union says it highlights a bigger problem with governance at Swinburne, which, unlike other universities, owns and operates many of the student services on campus. Swinburne says it is co-designing a new single student body with the union and other groups, but did not say if the organisation would be majority student-run.
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