The Crisis We Had to Have: The International Education 'Sector' Pauses for Reflection

According to some, Australia's international education sector is in crisis. Exchange-rate shifts, concerns about violence, newly-enthusiastic competitors in the US and the UK, and changes to visa requirements for international students have conspired to make enrolment numbers stagnant, and many institutions nervous.

Under these circumstances, the prominence in Australia's public conversation of the international education "sector" is worth examining more closely and critically. The "sector" may be a useful category for accumulating statistics about total revenue and economic impact, but less helpful for understanding the programs and institutions, the students and staff who participate in them, or the specific challenges they face.

More specifically, generic sector-level discourse about international education tends to be driven by the commonality of financial scale, rather than the more elusive but more fundamental issues of inherent quality and value, which are more varied. Revenue is what they have in common - but that tends to hide rather than reveal what must now be given attention.

Policy and strategy constructed purely on the commonality that international students pay fees dislocates the necessary place of education itself as the foundation of strategic vision for colleges and universities. It objectifies students as 'clients', countries as 'markets', colleges as 'providers', and makes education itself as inspiring as making widgets.

If any more engaging vision is obscured by such language and by anxiety about revenue, should we then wonder why Australia seems vulnerable to perceptions of racism, or that we struggle to persuade some prospective students that we are offering an experience of the highest quality?

The great opportunity offered by the current crisis might be for reflection. If business as usual is not possible in some places, it's time to ask what the business is, and what it is for.

The most valuable thing would be for the balance to swing to the specifics of education itself. This will involve above all an openness to diverse strategies, whose commonality is based on the pursuit of the high quality. Quality, varied as it necessarily is, is the real common selling-point of Australian education for genuine international students.

Pursuit of quality needs to be supported by a policy and regulatory framework flexible enough to allow such diverse strategies for quality to emerge and flourish, and not merely by attempts to make institutions mark to a common bottom-line.

The irony of a public conversation and policy framework which start with the money is that they are less likely to achieve or sustain financial results. A shift of focus regarding international education, from generic revenue goals to the more varied ones of education excellence, is required for Australian educational institutions to assure their inherent quality, and hence to be capable of contributing economically as well.

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