Unpacking ‘Cash Cows’ International Students and the Economism of Asian Racialisation

This is image functions as the cover of the blog post Unpacking ‘Cash Cows’ International Students and the Economism of Asian Racialisation'. The image features the profile of a university graduate from the back alongside the symbol of the Australian dollar and the text 'Cash Cows'.

As authors of a series of publications on international students and education we woke up to a flood of Facebook status updates and tweets following the screening of the Four Corners’ program, ‘Cash Cows’.  We were enraged. It was not the expose itself that enraged us but the social media commentary. Rather than revealing anything new, we had to read through the umpteenth round of stupefied outrage which can be summarised as follows: 1) there is a lack of diversity of voices (the interviewees are almost always white; 2) the representation of international students is racialised; 3) international students are the victims and should not be blamed for their own exploitation; and, most obviously, 4) the real problem is ‘neoliberal’ cuts to university funding.

The vast majority of outraged commentators never mentions any critical study of the issues, nor does it refer to past media exposes or similar denunciations of international education. It did not produce any supporting data nor link to the broader issues concerning the settler colonial border regime in Australia. After years of observation, we can safely say that each time an expose is aired in the market of public bewilderment, historical amnesia and the related erasure of effective political analysis is evident on both sides of the debate.

Let us start with the title of the latest expose itself: ‘Cash Cows’. As a senior scholar wrote on her Facebook page, ‘Did they really call it ‘Cash Cows’?’ One of us responded that ‘that expression has been used since the 1970s, outrage is a bit overdue…’ To which she replied, in a lightly dismissive tone, that she cannot say where the use of the term started but that she has heard it used for ‘around 20 years,’ roughly, from the late 1990s.  Somebody else commented that she remembered the term being common in the field of English as a Second Language (ELICOS) teaching since the 1980s.

When it comes to higher education, the 1980s are not the same as the late 1990s. In the ‘80s, international education had only recently been turned into a ‘trade’ followed by a financial boom in the so called ELICOS sector.[1] By the ‘90s, international education had become a fully-fledged industry, seen as one of the country’s best options to secure economic competitiveness in the global market of services.[2]

The term ‘cash cows’ in fact emerged in the 1970s when international education was still entirely administered as a form of aid. Yet, most students were fee-paying. The term began to circulate to denote Australian universities’ increasing financial reliance on students coming from Asian-Pacific developing countries. The link between international education and migration had already been established insofar as many of these students ended up staying and were therefore regarded as prospective skilled migrants who paid for their own education. [3]

Neither of our colleagues’ guesses about the origins of the term ‘cash cows’ was correct, but they exemplify how the term is employed with no regard to where and when the term ‘cash cows’ originates and what exactly it means. The term ‘cash cows’ is obviously offensive. However, the kind of imagery this term conjures as well as the reasons that justify its acceptability in public debates demands further critique. It will be then possible to see how the tropes used to talk about international students are connected to each other via histories of racialisation that go far beyond the use of ‘spooky’ music background.[4]

Fast-forward a few weeks. As we respectively make the time to sit down and watch Four Corners’ latest expose, our first reaction is simple surprise. Nothing new under the ABC sun with all the usual tropes present. Headphones on and notebooks ready next to our worn laptops, we write down one trope after the other as they are made to work in ‘Cash Cows’.

The first trope to make its appearance is ‘third biggest export industry’. Like any other article or TV programme on the topic, this latest expose too begins with emphasising Australian universities’ financial over-reliance on international students. A direct link between a 2-billion-dollar funding cut and the 34-billion-dollars of net income generated by international students is drawn right at the beginning of the programme. Thus, the monetarisation of higher education is framed as the main reason for universities’ predatory behaviour and for international students’ academic struggles.

The second trope is that of the ‘deficient learner’.[5] According to this trope, international students lack the language skills necessary to successfully complete a study programme in Australia. By no chance, the show links universities’ predatory behaviour to the academic challenges faced by international students through an investigation into the waiving of English language requirements. By taking the Murdoch University as an example, Four Corners individuates this practice as one which leads to the admission of students who are not qualified to attend university and who, consequently, fail to meet academic standards. A staff member unravels in front of the ABC’s cameras as he recounts that since the University of Murdoch decided to address its 5-million-dollar deficit by tapping into the Punjabi market of international students, the pile of misconduct cases on his desk has grown.

As the link between university management greed and international students’ poor language abilities is established, the expose can finally introduce the third and most common trope in the representation of international students: the ‘victim’. Not all international students are blamed for threatening Australian academic standards. Rather, they are collectively represented as victims of a vicious system that promises them a slice of the Australian lifestyle (whatever this means) but ultimately delivers substandard courses purposely designed to cash in on them. Even when studying at bona fide universities, international students are portrayed as being failed by a system that sets them up to failure. By admitting them regardless of their level of preparation, students find themselves under pressure while also dealing with financial concerns and family expectations.

This leads to the fourth trope: the heroic staff member who risks everything to expose the evil system of international education, otherwise known as the ‘whistle-blower’. Presented as the ultimate truth on the matter, her testimony is presented not so much as expertise, but as first-hand knowledge gathered from the frontline. As such, the whistle-blower herself is depicted as a double victim. On the one hand, she is the one who has to work over-time to make up for international students’ deficiency. On the other hand, she has to resist institutional pressure so that the integrity of academic standards is secured.

Portrayed as caught between students who are incapable of following instructions and high-ranking managers who are too busy addressing university deficits to care about working conditions, the staff member cum whistle-blower emerges as the subject who suffers the most. However, as the drama of universities’ contradictions is staged one more time for the national public, the upper echelons of Australian universities remain nameless and faceless. In contrast to them, interview excerpts with international students as well as shots of them going about their daily life are copiously employed to visually reinforce their association with the commercialisation of higher education.

The ‘victim’ trope doubles down on this association, marking the high number of international student enrolments as an anomaly that needs immediate redress. When the expose flags this number as a matter of concern, one group among them is automatically singled out for posing a threat to national security besides straining universities’ resources. Throughout the whole programme a sinister figure hovers: the ‘border trespasser’. Placed in juxtaposition with the ‘genuine’ international student who meets university requirements, the border trespasser is the ‘bogus’ student who seeks education as a means to a ‘visa outcome’. As such, she is not a victim dumbed by the system but rather a wilful agent testing the integrity of the migration system.

The branding of academically struggling international students as ‘bogus’ disregards a number of things. First, it averts attention from less recognised forms of plagiarism by senior academics of their junior colleagues and students. Second, it fails to note how domestic students are also exploited when pushed into academic courses they are unprepared for. Third, it erases how international students who seek a migration outcome are just following a pathway officially promoted by the state since 2001. Lastly, the juxtaposition of ‘genuine’ versus ‘bogus’ functions as an affective touchstone that sorts international students into deserving and non-deserving migrants.[6] It is not by chance that each apparent crisis in the ‘export industry’ of international education has been resolved not by tightening students’ visa requirements but those connected to permanent residency.[7] In other words, Australian universities are integral to the country’s border regime and, as such, those who work within and for them are placed in charge of monitoring its porosity.

However, unpacking the tropes employed in the expose does not explain what holds them together in a coherent narrative. Mostly importantly, it does not explain why the seeming permeability of the Australian border is considered such a legitimate cause of collective panic that making international students stand for everything wrong with higher education today is socially acceptable. What is it that makes international students signify the abject commodification of both higher education and migration, while whistle-blowers are portrayed as the last bastions against falling academic standards and visa requirements?

To answer these questions effectively and stop the never-ending cycle of exposes, we must look to settler colonial studies. Throughout their history, Australian colonies sought Asian workers who they could dispose of whenever their ‘cheap’ labour was no longer needed. In the mid 1800s, following the emancipation from slavery in the USA, settler colonies around the world increasingly instituted indentured labour schemes to meet the volatile demands of capital. As Iyko Day observes in Alien Capital, this practice resulted in the use of the border as a complex array of discourses and practices through which to manage a surplus labour supply. In Australia too, the border was used as a means to temporarily include exogenous workers while excluding them as settlers proper. In this regard, immigration and citizenship laws were underpinned by a logic of exclusion according to which Asian labour was identified with alien-ness and disposability.

For Day, the use of indentured labour at the time of rapid industrialisation fed white settlers’ glorification of the material aspects of commodity production as if these could be separated from the financial processes which standardise commodities with an exchange value. Because of the failure to come to terms with the dual nature of commodities, white settlers ended up associating their use and exchange-value to the concrete and abstract aspects of capitalism. Naming this misunderstanding of commodities ‘romantic capitalism,’ she sees it as the root cause of white settlers’ rejection of anything they perceived as quantitative and unnatural, which included capitalists’ calculations of the labour necessary to produce commodities for profit.

Romantic anti-capitalists also saw the labour required to produce commodities as if it was split into a concrete and abstract dimension. In the case of colonial development, this split amounted to seeing the physical work required to turn native land into white property (i.e. scrubbing and farming) as unrelated to the international financial processes through which labour was reified as an exchangeable commodity. Because Asian workers’ were already cast as an alien and disposable labour force, the antinomy between the concrete and abstract dimensions of capitalism was projected onto their bodies.

On the one hand, this projection underpinned settlers’ identification with the organic and positive aspects of concrete social relations which furthered their sense of belonging to the land. On the other hand, it cast Asians as a threat to the ‘concrete, qualitative sphere of white labour’s social reproduction’. To use an example close to the Australian reader, across most colonies and different stages of ‘settlement,’ white union workers opposed the employment of ‘coolies’ not because they worked less well or for less wages than their white counterparts but because their lower standard of living threatened the overall quality of settlers’ working conditions and lifestyles.

Day defines the overall identification of Asians with the ‘abstract evils of capitalism’ as the ‘economism of Asian racialisation’. Her insight can be used to move beyond the cyclical repetition of stupefied reactions to begin to unpack the chain of associations that the term ‘cash cows’ conjures and hides. Since the 1970s, international students have been regarded as ideal migrants, willing to pay for their own education. In the following decades, the nexus of international education-migration was perfected so that universities could assist the country with meeting capital’s volatile demand for skilled labour. Since 2001, skilled and semi-skilled professions have been added and erased from migration lists. This has increased international students’ disposability in that permanent residency represents a promise which might never materialise. Just as in the nineteenth century, the border is employed as a complex array of discourses and practices through which international students are constructed as a threat to the working and living conditions of Australian workers.

If Australian academic commentators took Day’s work on the ‘economism of Asian racialisation’ into account, it would be possible to see why and how international students can be both victims and agents of universities’ financially predatory behaviour, and why whistle-blowers are glorified as the ultimate defenders of Australian values while border trespassers are identified as the embodiment of the most evil form of economic globalisation. Till then, we can only wait for the next expose and related moral panic.


[1] See Indelicato, Maria Elena (2018) Australia’s New Migrants. International Students’ History of Affective Encounters with the Border, Routledge: London, 31-35.

[2] See Indelicato, Maria Elena (2018) Australia’s New Migrants. International Students’ History of Affective Encounters with the Border, Routledge: London, 67-71.

[3] See Rao, Lakshmana G. (1976) Overseas Students in Australia: Some Major Findings From a Nation-Wide Survey. Education Research Unit, Research School of Social Sciences. Australian National University: Canberra; and Rao, Lakshmana G. (1979) Brain Drain and Foreign Students: A Study of the Attitudes and Intentions of Foreign Students in Australia, the U.S.A., Canada and France. University of Queensland Press: Brisbane.

[4] Following the screening of ‘Cash Cows’, many social media comments referred to the use of ‘spooky’ music to foreground internationals students in the show as a disturbing audio-visual technique of racialisation. Interestingly, ‘spooky’ is a racial slur used for Black people in North America.

[5] This is a trope which history we traced in two articles on the legacy of Cold War epistemology and Orientalism in discourses pertaining international students and education. See, Maria Elena Indelicato and Ivana Prazic (2019) The Legacy of Cold War Anti-Racism:  a Genealogy of Cultural Distance in the Internationalisation of Higher Education, Paedagogica Historica, vol. 55: 2, 295-313; and Maria Elena Indelicato and Ivana Prazic (2019) Legacies of Empire: From the ‘Religions of China’ to the ‘Confucian Heritage’ Learner, Paedagogica Historica, vol. 55: 2,  277-294.

[6] See Indelicato, Maria Elena (2018) Australia’s New Migrants. International Students’ History of Affective Encounters with the Border, Routledge: London, 38-45.

[7] See Indelicato, Maria Elena (2018) Australia’s New Migrants. International Students’ History of Affective Encounters with the Border, Routledge: London, 71-74.

Maria Elena Indelicato is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Studies (CES), University of Coimbra. She received her PhD from the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney. Besides her monograph Australia’s New Migrants, she has published in race feminist and cultural studies journals such as Outskirts, Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Journal and Chinese Cinemas. Indelicato is the editor of the ACRAWSA Blog. Ivana Pražić earned her Ph.D. from the University of Sydney researching Chinese Indonesian cultural politics. As a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellow (National Library Board, Singapore) she explored the formation of Confucianism as a modern religion and Chinese identity politics in Southeast Asia. Pražić has published in Cultural Studies and Feminist journals such as China Media Report, Transnational Cinemas, Genero and Musawa.

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