After the Perfect Storm: The Future of International Education in Australia

Does Australia's struggling engagement with international education have a future?

News media have reported widely on something of a "perfect storm" over the last year or so for institutions dependent on international enrolments, particularly from Asia. The combination of events has been problematic: reputational damage from racist incidents in the Australian community, exchange rate shifts making Australia a more expensive destination, increasing activity in marketing from the UK and the USA, and new restrictions on Australian visas for certain countries. Together these have made life tough for Australian colleges and universities.

Going deeper however, the news varies a great deal according to the kind of institution and the sort of courses students are seeking to undertake. New figures from Australian Education International show, unsurprisingly, that Indian students seeking VET courses fell most dramatically in 2010, by over 20%. Probably for a different set of reasons, English-language courses were similarly hit.

On the other hand, the number of international students enrolling in Australian university courses actually grew in 2010. Part of the difference has to do with time-frames; students often come to higher education through feeder programs, including English-language courses or Foundation Studies programs like that at Trinity. As a result their decisions are really made a year or more before their University enrolment, and the consequences of changes in preferences and patterns take longer to appear. Close to home for instance, Trinity had a particular good year for recruitment in 2010, and the University of Melbourne will thus have a good one in 2011. We expect 2011 to be solid but less spectacular, and similarly therefore the University might expect to have slightly lower demand from international students in 2012.

"Slightly" less demand and "solid" performance is indeed the order of the day for Australia's most desirable institutions and high-quality programs in higher education. Others do clearly have (even) greater challenges. Talk of "crises" and "crashes", however, results from clumsy aggregation of issues, as well as of statistics, in a sector whose diversity now makes it increasingly unhelpful to consider it as a single whole for most purposes. True, the net impact on the Australian economy of the downturns in VET and some other sectors is serious; but ironically the tendency to treat the sector as a coherent whole, and to make policy (e.g., over visa restrictions) as though it were so, has compounded the problems faced by some institutions.

Public policy and public discourse over higher education have long been mesmerized by the bumper crop of international students and their capacity to close funding gaps for public institutions and send cash into Australian communities. This undeniably important opportunity has been seized both creatively and clumsily, depending on where and what we are considering. The unedifying stories of fly-by-night providers exploiting students from India constitute an extreme case; but any institution, however venerable, that sees international students merely as an answer to a funding problem is not only acting dubiously relative to its own mission and values, but riding for a fall with regard to that very part of their activity.

Students from Asia have been attracted to Australian institutions because of the quality of our offerings and the reasonable cost of obtaining them (we should admit that the attraction of permanent residence is often potent as well, but that's another story). The survivors, in VET and higher education and elsewhere, from the "perfect storm" will be those best able to demonstrate that quality and value, and necessarily therefore a deeper sense of their own educational mission and identity.

Without a bigger picture - a sense of how our contribution to these students' education connects with the mission of a university and its role in contributing to a global public good - we risk not only failing the moral challenge of a shrinking world, but undermining the quality proposition of the original offering.

If we have passed the "high water mark" of the recent rich tide of enrolments, as it has been suggested, all the more reason to ensure now that we have firm ground to stand on, and make sure we have a high-quality future to offer both Australian and international students.

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