The value and prospects of Australia's foreign education policy

As the Australian government announces plans to reopen international borders, the impact of the pandemic on Australia's international student program has been more than merely financial, writes Charlotte Morrison.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken Australia’s international education program and threatens further damage. Government cuts to university funding, a virus resistant to control, and international border restrictions suggest the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. This calls for a new long-term strategy to make study in Australia accessible and to promote Australia as a premier international study destination.

18 months after international students were effectively barred from Australia, the government has announced plans to resume international travel. At the Australian International Education Conference last week, Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge acknowledged that beyond easing border restrictions, rebuilding the international student sector would require the “…need to do things differently in the medium term.”

The economic impact of the pandemic on higher education paints a grim picture. For the first time since 2009, the total revenue of Australian universities fell – dropping $2.4 billion last year. While the sector suffered as the pandemic emerged in 2020, the effects on education this year are estimated to have been harsher, as enrolments drop and border restrictions strand nearly 164,000 Australian visa-holding foreign students overseas.

The loss to Australia is more than merely economic. Foreign students comprise Australia’s fourth largest export, but also an unquantifiable source of public diplomacy and cultural soft power.

Even before the pandemic, students voiced increasingly negative views of the quality of their educational experience. In 2019, the national Student Experience Survey recorded the lowest overall educational experience rating since its inception in 2012. With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the trend unsurprisingly continued. The international Student Experience Survey, which measures the quality of teaching, resources and student support, as well as experiences with accommodation, employment opportunities and relationships, reported a 63 percent positive educational experience rating, down from 75 percent in 2019, and a 2 percent greater drop than that of domestic students.

It is not just teaching quality that defines international student experiences. Ensuring an individual’s wellbeing through structured support is fundamental, particularly in the context of racist attacks on international students and exclusion from government assistance.

Foreign education contributes to Australia’s international standing and strategic engagement by enabling exposure to foreign languages and cultures and creating connections overseas. International students serve as de facto ambassadors. A negative experience in Australia can affect university budgets and Australia’s international reputation.

In exploring the future of the international student program and Australia’s reputation, we need to ask why students choose Australia. Broadly, international students can be divided into those who seek the prestige of an Australian degree, and those who seek the cultural experience. Bearing this in mind, there are several possibilities for Australia to revitalise the international student program.

First, Australia must be capable of adapting to the demands of the pandemic by finding ways to maintain international student access to our tertiary institutions. With international border restrictions about to ease, it is necessary to ensure the capacity, affordability and quality of quarantine facilities. International students have made it clear that they are willing to accept the costs and inconvenience of quarantine, but the adequacy of accommodation arrangements to meet an influx of students in early 2022 is paramount.

Secondly, the quality of education offered must not be perceived as diminished. This is essential to maintaining the prestige of an Australian degree. As other major overseas study destinations such as the United States and United Kingdom reopen to international students, Australian universities must optimise the way technology is used and deliver an enriching physical experience in order to compete. Campuses and classrooms should reopen to face-to-face mixing and learning – bearing in mind necessary public health mandates – for fully vaccinated students to rival the opening of universities overseas.

In order to sustain face-to-face teaching, the University of New South Wales, the University of Melbourne, and Australian National University among others have established local study hubs in China. This provides international students with greater engagement and value in their Australian university studies.

Thirdly, the international student program needs to diversify. Australia should be a study destination for students from an array of countries and backgrounds. This also requires diversification of subjects offered, while still ensuring the development of core skills. These principles are rooted in the history of the international student program. The 1984 Jackson Committee Report discouraged any attempt by Australia to ‘…plan the disciplinary composition of the intake from developing countries…’ on the basis that the jobs undergraduates will be performing in future may not yet exist.

Fourthly, to satisfy the needs of those seeking the cultural experience of studying in Australia, universities need to create pathways for students to explore opportunities beyond the campus and beyond the educational low hanging fruit of commerce and management degrees. International students, naturally drawn to others of the same national origin, risk missing the enriching experiences that can be found in the wider community. Universities and government should put more effort into creating the means of engagement. In education, international students should be informed of the breadth of educational opportunities available.

Fifthly, the welfare of students has to be seen holistically. Access to services such as counselling and financial aid contributes to the material wellbeing and level of support for international students. During the pandemic, international students have been more vulnerable to mental health issues and homelessness, an experience that has highlighted the underlying deficiencies in student support.

Beyond those actions within the educational domain, Australia needs to grasp the bigger picture in the international education program.

As was made clear in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, international education is a source of soft power and public diplomacy for Australia. Supporting the education of emerging leaders and creating a global alumni community connected to Australia has enabled the spread of Australian knowledge and values, and fostered fondness for Australia overseas.

This makes international education a foreign policy and diplomatic issue that should matter to the Federal Government and its missions abroad – it should not be seen as solely a money-spinner for universities.

The government and our educational institutions need to work together to cultivate strong relationships with the home countries and institutions of international students.

In 2016, the University of Melbourne launched an official WeChat account – China’s platform ‘for everything’, used for instant messaging, social media, and payments. This was a good example of creative engagement with a market that provides the majority of Australia’s international students. In view of the chill in Australia’s relations with China, and the effect of this on the international student program, it is essential university leaders and diplomats employ a diversity of communications tools and culturally attuned messaging to promote Australia as a safe, open, welcoming, and quality destination for international students. It is an approach that should be taken in every key source market – not just China.

Government policy also has a role to play in creating a conducive recruitment environment for universities. It should consider a pathway for students to work and residency. Having nurtured a talent pool, Australia would be wise to utilise it at a time of skills shortages. This in time would help further enmesh Australia with foreign markets and spur our own growth.

All this points to the obvious – government and universities ought to work more closely than ever to develop and implement a strategy that capitalises on the opportunities for the nation from a successful international education program.

Charlotte Morrison is an intern at Asialink in her final year of a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Studies at the University of Melbourne.