Countering Cash Cows: Rethinking How Australian Higher Education Views International Students

Update: A version of this piece was published today (12 March 08) in The Australian.

International students’ interests are not at the forefront of current debates about Higher Education funding in Australia. Their access to Australian Universities will not change radically with the implementation of new policies that abolish full-fee domestic places – as before, students from overseas will be fee-payers. But the changes promised by the Rudd Government, aimed to benefit domestic students, entrench some unhappy assumptions about those from elsewhere.

Over the last few decades, Australian Universities have built up a remarkable and problematic dependence on income derived from overseas students, often receiving more revenue from their tuition fees than from Commonwealth Grants. The capacity of such students to offer this revenue stream risks being the sole determiner of their value to the Australian system, student numbers being determined not by policy factors relating to educational experiences or outcomes, so much as the ‘bottom line’ or other practical limits.

Educational leaders and policy makers are certainly sensitive to this issue. In an important speech at the Melbourne Press Club last week, Monash University Vice-Chancellor Richard Larkins – also an alumnus and Fellow of Trinity – made some telling points about the challenges facing the sector, including the place of international students. He noted, for instance, the inhospitable message created by something as concrete and small-minded as the lack of public transport concessions to students from overseas.

Professor Larkins also called for the deregulation of the Student Contribution Amount for HECS, which would allow Universities themselves to set fees they deemed appropriate and viable. This is a complicated issue, but I would add one further reason it should be taken very seriously.

There is a sort of structural temptation to treat Australia’s international engagement, particularly for undergraduate education, as primarily financial. The inability of Australian Universities to charge fees beyond current HECS levels leaves international students easy targets for cash-strapped and short-sighted University managers and planners. Their renewed status as the sole group of full-fee payers, as well as the established reliance on international students in the sector, may be deeply subversive of attempts to set enrolment targets based on any other factor. Such an approach is ultimately self-defeating because it is not driven by the desire for excellence that is necessary for the success of the institutions, and risks undermining the quality of what is being offered to those on whose enthusiasm the system depends.

Although Australia in general is well-regarded by international students who come here, this positive view is no cause for complacency when an increasingly competitive future looms. Recent research suggests that the specific institution, rather than a national system, will be the key to attracting quality students in future (Campus Review 19.02.08, pp. 1, 5). Australian Universities need to base their international strategies first on maintaining and developing quality, and by doing so address specific concerns such as pedagogy and student experience. They also need to be able to think about goals that recall and go beyond the Colombo Plan of the mid-twentieth century, reclaiming the place of education as a basis for international relations and social development.

We risk relying on the flawed assumption that the relationship between international enrolments and quality of educational experience runs largely in one direction, and that so long as the funding holds out all students will benefit. This is just one symptom of a broader flaw in discourse about Australian Higher Education, the one which imagines curriculum alone as a guarantee of desired University outcomes. If that were true, it would matter little to the quality of education just who participated, or where. In fact we know that students benefit as much from the social, cultural and aesthetic environment in which their experience takes place as from other factors – one element of which is just who does participate.

For international students’ sake but for Australians’ too, we need to have aims for international engagement based on considerations of quality such as pedagogy and student experience. Trinity itself runs what is recognized as a leading Foundation Studies (TCFS) program in close association with the University of Melbourne. We are benefiting from strong enrolments at present, but believe we have achieved them by maintaining and promoting quality of teaching and learning for their own sake. Since our program is specifically for international students, we don’t have the option of admitting Australians and anticipating the more diverse student experience at the University, but we know that we benefit pedagogically – not just financially - from having students from as many as 25 foreign countries. Their diversity is a huge advantage, as well as a challenge, to teachers and to the students themselves. The University also benefits from the presence of a group of students whose rich experience with us has proven to be a successful preparation for what comes after.

Australian Universities need to ask now just what forms of educational engagement with a global reality will make them better places to teach, learn and research. The second question, not the first, is how all this relates to the ‘bottom line’. Of course the capacity to ask such questions itself depends on financial viability, and there is the rub. But one thing is clear – selling education internationally without regard to the impact of the sale on the product itself is unsustainable. If Australian Universities want to offer anything to our neighbours in decades to come, we must pay more attention not just to what we are offering now, but to whom we offer it also. That must mean giving our Universities the scope to consider international students as enriching our campuses for pedagogical purposes, and not merely for economic ones.

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