In the week of this year’s Australian International Education Conference under way in Perth, international education in Australia is at an interesting juncture.
Ten years ago in October 2009, the then president of the industry’s peak body, the International Education Association of Australia, ominously observed that the data confirmed the “ongoing robustness of the industry, at least for now” with “still plenty of indicators around that give reason for anxiety”.
Just a year later in October 2010, the tide had well and truly turned: “International education in Australia is in decline. The reasons are well documented — bad publicity over student security issues, a rising Australian dollar, college closures, a question mark over the link between international education and migration, and difficulties for students trying to get visas to come here to study.”
Today, international education in Australia is not in the same situation but there are reasons for anxiety. The Australian dollar remains low and college closures aren’t making headlines of late.
Australia continues to be a safe destination for international students, but different concerns over foreign interference are rising. We have successfully decoupled study from migration, and our post-study work rights regime remains attractive, but market interest will quickly turn to Britain, where post-study work rights are being reinstated after a seven-year hiatus. Some students, particularly from South Asia, are finding it difficult to get visas to come here to study and institutions do not always understand the reasons for refusals.
In light of these headwinds and several years of record growth, what Australia seems to be asking with some trepidation is: “Should our international education sector continue to grow?” The answer should be a resounding yes. Beyond the many social, economic and geopolitical benefits of international education, the reality is our internationalisation journey is far from done.
As Central Queensland University vice-chancellor Nick Klomp asked at the recent Study Queensland Summit, why is it we are quick to point to the fact international students are concentrated in some universities and some programs but we never wring our hands over the fact international students are under-represented in so many other areas of our education system?
Across the higher education sector about one in five students on campus is an international student, but at many universities this ratio is one in eight or well below.
There is large global representation in the big three fields of business, information technology and engineering, but there remain low levels of internationalisation of the student body in the fields of education, health, humanities and the arts. In many disciplines, the ratio would be closer to one in 20.
Across our TAFE institutes, international students make up just one in 50 students.
The Australian government is introducing measures to encourage international students to study and stay in the regions. While many may debate the methods, few could argue with the intent given fewer than one in 30 international students are in a regional area. Apart from Queensland, the figure is more like one in 100.
Given the talk of trade wars, the rise of nationalistic sentiment and unabating ethno-cultural conflicts, it is no wonder that global competence is the key thematic focus of Program for International Student Assessment this time around. Global competence is defined as the capacity to examine intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective wellbeing and sustainable development.
The PISA 2018 questionnaire includes questions on:
The 2018 PISA was completed by more than a half-million students aged 15 across 80 countries. This time last year, 14,500 students across 800 Australian schools completed the questionnaire.
Education is not the only way to combat racism and discrimination and, similarly, welcoming international students into our classrooms and communities is not the only way to promote internationalisation.
But it is an effective option. The internationalisation of education and institutions in Australia is the foundation for globalisation, multiculturalism and some would say innovation and productivity.
It is true that in many programs across many campuses, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, there is a problem with lack of diversity. There is no university in Australia that is not tackling this head-on.
The opportunity will be to leverage the headwinds in recruitment and the diversification agenda to drive a wider internationalisation process across those programs, campuses, faculties and institutions where international students remain under-represented. The forthcoming PISA assessment of the global competence of young Australians may well reinforce the need to widen our perspectives on international education.
This piece was first published in The Australian on 16 October 2019.
Jonathan Chew recently prepared a report for the International Education Association of Australia on the topic “Economic opportunities and outcomes of post-study work rights”.
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