As Australia enjoys an economic rebound from COVID, one aspect of our economy that remains mired in crisis is our fourth biggest export – higher education. Denis Blight, one of the architects of the international student program, argues government and higher education institutions will need new strategies to restore Australia’s competitiveness as an education market.
COVID-19’s impact on international student enrolments in Australia has created a higher education crisis. A Federal Government international education strategy consultation paper confirms the downward enrolment trends and their consequences. Two things stand out from this document: without remedial action the impact of the pandemic on our universities and colleges will be long and severe; and a new international education strategy must “place an equal emphasis on onshore, offshore, outbound, online and research modes of engagement”.
Australia’s international image has been positively affected by its response to COVID-19: in halting the spread of the virus we have done better than most other countries. This has entailed closing our international borders and imposing State and Territory border closures. But in doing so abruptly, without providing a safety net for international students, Australia has lost trust as a reliable deliverer of international education services.
Priority accorded to bringing Australians home has left many international students feeling abandoned. IDP Connect research shows more than half of the students currently applying to Australian universities may switch to another country, if they can start on campus there sooner. Australian policies on climate change and refugees compound this ambivalence.
Australia’s education exports had been growing rapidly since 2000. The pandemic, and government responses to it, ended this happy record. But the judgement implicit in the consultation paper that growth in on-campus enrolments cannot be sustained at the former pace might be too conservative. After all, the growth over the period to 2017 was achieved on a narrow base of source countries and studies. Demographics, marketing, and capacity could restore it.
The paper, released by Education Minister Alan Tudge, overcooks the recent move to Internet delivery including the scope for its acceleration. Australia’s teachers have been resourceful in adapting to remote teaching, but turning on Zoom as an expedient is not the same as rethinking all aspects of pedagogy for online delivery. It is unrealistic to expect lecturers overnight to become graphic and digital designers and actors, especially if — as the paper posits — Australia is to become a global leader in online and offshore delivery. Our universities do not all have the financial or technical resources to do this well. Placing equal emphasis on all modes of engagement (and the italics in the quote above are mine) will require academics to be trained in the mini-skills required for better design and delivery of courses. Moreover, increased emphasis on online delivery will place Australia in a highly competitive global marketplace facing the likes of Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT.
What drives young people to come to Australia to study? Employability is important to some, but how crucial is the prospect of permanent residence? The consultative paper hints at but skips over the nexus between immigration and student visas. If we recognise this motivation as legitimate, we need to promote an equally transparent international student path to permanent residence and citizenship lest we are outpaced by the UK and Canada.
Prospective university students view extracurricular activities on offer at an Australian university, Melbourne - August 5, 2018. Image credit: Nils Versemann, Shutterstock.
There is scope for some features of international education to be directed at Australian as well as at international students. Already some universities are building modest online study communities to allow Australian students to engage with foreign universities, while integrating their coursework with Australian curricula. However, the urge to travel and socially engage will always be with us; to learn on campus, at home or abroad.
We might be overloading international education with a surfeit of objectives. Let’s be clear: our aim must be to increase and sustain international enrolments in Australian universities and colleges. The benefits of doing that are economic (international education was our fourth biggest export in 2019), educational (the presence of foreign students and scholars culturally enriches our campuses), and diplomatic (returning students form political and economic communities that are assets to Australia in their home countries).
We should have five objectives: first, deliver a high-quality education option for Australian and international students for which they, or their sponsors, are prepared to pay; secondly, retain Australia’s a top-three leadership position in international education with total international student numbers approaching their pre-pandemic level; thirdly, sustain Australia’s foreign exchange earnings from the export of educational services; fourthly, increase the revenues of Australian universities and colleges to reinvest in the quality and range of their teaching, research and community services; and fifthly, sustain Australian community support and taxpayer funding for the international education program.
In order to meet these objectives, higher education institutions will need to do more. They should build stronger collaborations between them, deliver the best possible student experience, embrace innovation, and foster international connections for Australians.
They also will need to deepen connections with industry and seek new partnerships with commercial actors. IDP’s success in founding the International English Language Testing System in partnership with Australian universities and colleges, the British Council and Cambridge University is an exemplar. Rather than attempting to digitise their content for Internet delivery, universities should outsource this task to specialist publishers.
Government too has a vital role to play. It should seek to sustain growth of the international education sector by diversification. This means expanding beyond the current narrow array of products and services, building a uniquely Australian edge by providing pathways for international students to employability and residency, and giving priority to research and training on our relations with the Indo-Pacific and other areas where we have a competitive advantage or national interest. We will need to go beyond traditional markets and end over-dependence on one or two countries in Asia. If the consultation paper’s call for an equal emphasis on all modes of delivery is to become policy, government must recognise the huge financial investment required to achieve digital and offshore campuses and support institutions in making the transition.
With some of these measures, once international borders reopen, growth in enrolments on campus might resume – supplemented by online and offshore delivery. If the government is serious about change, it will need to show the colour of its money. It should accord higher education the status of any big, successful export sector, reach agreement on objectives with universities and colleges, preferably through their peak organisations, and then give them, their teachers and researchers, the space to grow.
Denis Blight AO is the former CEO of international education placement organisation, IDP Education Limited, and a Visitor in the History Department of the Australian National University. You can follow Denis on Twitter at @denis_blight.
Banner image: Humanities lecture theatre at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia - August 2, 2015. Credit: Nils Versemann, Shutterstock.