Why have a NATIONWIDE external student Association?

Nobel Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, was possibly the world’s most famous external student. While incarcerated in prison for 27 years, he studied Law as a University of London External Student. More examples of Nobel Prize winning external students are Derek Walcott, Sir FG Hopkins, Prof R Coase and Wole Soyinka. This is just looking at the University of London.

Some of these would now be called international students, studying externally as they lived far, far away. But what is the difference between ‘distance’ and ‘external’? These terms are often confused and used synonymously, but there is a key difference. An external student does not attend lectures and seminars on campus. The term ‘external’ seems more meaningful as it denotes how the person interacts with the university, while the term ‘distance’ could be anything from a few kilometres to 5000kms. There are also ‘internal’ students who study online for a third trimester and many other mixed mode combinations.

For the student, the major distinction between internal and external is possibly whether one is mostly studying on one’s own or whether one congregates with other students for lectures and tutes. The meetings with other students tend to provide a great deal of support, purpose and encouragement. Students living on campus are often provided with meals, room cleaning, sports facilities and entertainment, and in some cases a lot of partying!

In contrast, most external students are part-time (75% in 2012), having to hold down a job while studying. They often have a family to attend to, with all the interests and responsibilities that that entails. While the proportion of female internal students has remained the same (53%) over the past 12 years, the proportion of female external students has risen to nearly 66%, 2 in 3.

Having finished work, cooked the family dinner and put the kids to bed, it can be hard to find the energy to study. It can also be very lonely, having to cut oneself off from one’s partner or family to focus on studies. The needs and wishes of external students tend to be very different to on-campus students.

This year the proportion of external students in Australia is likely to be about the same as the proportion of postgraduates and of overseas students, about 1 in 4. While these other groups are fully represented on student association boards and university councils, external students hardly feature at all. Furthermore, the terms ‘distance’, ‘external’ and ‘online’ do not exist in the Higher Education Acts while all the other distinctions do.

With the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the lack of space for city universities to physically expand, the number of external students is predicted to rise significantly. Hence, given the vast difference in the interests and issues faced by external in comparison to internal students, we have formed the Australian Online and External students Association.

AOESA was formed in late 2012 as a non-profit, national, democratic, pan-university body. Membership is currently free. We are approachable, transparent and always open to suggestions.

We may not be able to get students out of incarceration but we will do the best to help your studies run smoothly. For more information, see

Colin Hargreaves

The author Colin Hargreaves


  1. not sure I like the idea of having to go to a national association to have my needs represented…there should be efforts made to include these voices in each university. I’m also a bit dubious that the AOESA seems to have had its genesis in a dispute about paying the SSAF fee. A link to the AOESA submission to the government review would have been useful. Thanks

    1. Thanks for your comments on the article about AOESA.

      The reason for a nationwide association is two-fold

      a) External students are spread all over the nation and often the number of external students from one university is too small to make any functions practicable but, by combining external students from multiple universities, this suddenly becomes more feasible. Also many of the problems of life as an external student are the same for students at different universities and so this makes it even more worthwhile.

      b) NUS and CAPA are peak bodies representing the interests of undergraduates and postgraduates to government. No student can directly join either of these. You can only join your universities student association. The members of NUS and CAPA are the university student “associations” but these tend to be campus centric and hence external student issues are not represented very well at NUS and CAPA. Since there is an International SA and a Postgraduate SA in addition to NUS, it seems quite reasonable to have an External Student SA.

      Yes, it would be great if every university had its own external student association but, by the very nature of being external, these are quite hard to organise and get going.

      You question the association arising from a dispute but the fact that there is a dispute is what often what leads to people forming an association. In 2012, I arranged an event for external students of UNE in Sydney and then set up 4 more in Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Melbourne. It soon became clear that many issues were not UNE specific but rather external student specific. UNE does not have sufficient numbers in rural towns to make organising events practicable. This lead to the thought that what we really needed was a national or rather nationwide association.

      Thanks also for your comments about links on our web site. I have put links on the Home Page to both our submission and to the final government report.

      Many thanks again,

      Colin Hargreaves
      Mobile: 0488171717

      1. My point about the SSAF is that it tends to be an issue with people who have a political point to make. I am for the SSAF and students pooling their common resources rather than the sort of thing you get which is “I don’t use the facilities so I shouldnt have to pay” type thing.
        Also there is an issue at Monash where I am that a few subjects are migrating to online only but still students may also study on campus as well, so dividing people into on or off campus is a bit arbitrary?

        1. Thanks for your email.

          We are certainly not trying to marginalise externals; that would be the last thing we would want. However there are national associations for both postgraduates and international students and I would not have thought this has marginalised them. However with externals, there is even more reason for a nationwide association so that externals from different universities can support each other, especially in rural towns where there may only be one external student from one university, another from another university and so on. That is a key reason for the association.

          I agree with your qualms about “I don’t use the facilities so I shouldn’t have to pay” in general but feel it is a question of degree. The government has recognised that part-time students should not pay so much and surely this is because they are not liable to be on campus so much. If one extends this argument to externals, who in most cases never visit the campus except at graduation, one might argue that they also should pay less.

          Also if only 5% of students are externals, I would argue that it is different to when say 95% are externals. In the latter case, the 5% internals would be extremely well off while in the former case, it would make little difference to the internals. This is why it became such an issue at the University of New England where about 10% are mixed-mode, i.e. partly internal and partly “online or external” and 80% pure “external”. Here the externals contributed about $2m to the internals $1m.

          Your last point explains why we called the association “online and external” as there is very little difference. I am not 100% sure of the rules on this but I believe that if a student studies 1 term internally then they are treated as internal. Then the next term, if they study “online”, they can still attend lectures and seminars if they want. However if both terms are “online”, then I think they are classified as “external”. This may of course vary from university to university. I would greatly appreciate it if you could please let me know how you think it works at Monash.

          Hope all’s well.

          Best wishes,


          1. Thanks Colin for explaining a bit further. I really don’t want external students to be marginalised by being hived off to a national association is what Im trying to say. I wish you well.
            My point about the SSAF is that it tends to be an issue with people who have a political point to make. I am for the SSAF and students pooling their common resources rather than the sort of thing you get which is “I don’t use the facilities so I shouldnt have to pay” type thing.
            Also there is an issue at Monash where I am that a few subjects are migrating to online only but still students may also study on campus as well, so dividing people into on or off campus is a bit arbitrary?

  2. Hi
    don’t quote me but I have studied both on campus and off at Monash and it makes no difference …well the only difference is I might get some library services re posting material out if I study a unit off campus. Some semesters I have studied in both modes.

    Perhaps there are rules I am not aware of but I dont think so. The two modes are treated the same, except for the library services.”

    The small comments after this are not worth adding.

    In future if you moderate comments and approve them, it seems that I can post a reply. I just can’t approve comments or replies. I will look regularly to see if there are any new comments.

    Many thanks,


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