The Australian government has just released its much-anticipated Draft National Strategy for International Education. It celebrates Australia’s recent resurgence as a leading destination country, identifies areas that need to be improved to provide a better study experience for international students, and lays out a plan to further boost the global competitiveness of Australia’s international education sector. Along the way, the document also recognises how key international education is to Australia’s economy, society, and global competitiveness as well as its relationships with other countries.
Now that the draft has been released, the government will soon begin holding roundtable meetings with sector stakeholders and government officials from the education, foreign affairs, trade, immigration, and industry portfolios to fine-tune the strategy and put it into action.
Back to a position of strength
When the Coalition Government came to power in Australia in 2014, it quickly took steps to address a number of policy issues pertaining to the international education sector and to boost the country’s position as an attractive study destination. Those measures – including streamlined visa processing for universities and for an expanding list of institutions in other areas such as vocational and language training – immediately boosted the fortunes of the industry. International enrolments began to grow again in 2013 and then strengthened further in 2014.
Australia’s Minister for Education and Training, Christopher Pyne, announced last week that:
“In 2014, Australia hosted the highest number of international higher education students we have ever seen. The growth in international student numbers has added [AUS]$1 billion and 5,000 new jobs to our national economy.”
Mr Pyne noted that on top of the sector’s AUS$16.3 billion value and its support for 130,000 jobs across the country:
“International education nurtures cross-cultural networks in our region and strengthens our institutions across teaching and research. On top of that, international students bring enormous benefits to our economy, cities and towns. Wherever there is a university campus, a TAFE, a college or a school that offers international services, the local economy is healthier.”
Global competition for students drives areas of priority going forward
As much as Australia has rebounded in its ability to attract international students, it is facing stiff competition from a growing list of countries interested in boosting their international enrolments.
In the US, institutions are struggling with declining domestic student populations and consequent revenue challenges, which will likely drive more aggressive overseas recruitment in the coming years, especially with NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counselling) having lifted its ban on colleges working with international education agents.
The draft strategy notes also that the UK, Canada, and New Zealand have released their own international education sector strategies in the last couple of years.
In addition, the strategy document acknowledges that in some world university rankings (such as the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities), Australian universities are losing ground to Asian universities. It notes that countries in Asia and the Middle East are investing heavily in developing world-leading institutions and in becoming regional education hubs capable of drawing students away from traditional study abroad countries in favour of something closer to home.
With this in mind, the draft strategy isolates three priority areas it considers crucial to Australia’s continuing competitiveness:
- Getting the fundamentals right:
- Institutions will be encouraged to be autonomous and to build their individual strengths;
- Quality controls will be strengthened without creating excess bureaucracy;
- Investment will be poured into research and research infrastructure.
- Reaching out to the world:
- Australia will continue to invest in its existing research partnerships but also develop new ones;
- Research collaboration will be a priority;
- Australian students will be encouraged to study abroad more to increase two-way mobility flow.
- Staying competitive: Efforts will focus on improving international students’ experience through initiatives such as:
- Working to improve international students’ English proficiency;
- Maintaining competitive visas and strong consumer protections;
- Providing more post-study work opportunities for eligible international students;
- Assuring the provision of cutting-edge technologies and innovative teaching models into classrooms, as well as online and distance education;
- Lowering international students’ transportation costs;
- Bettering international students’ cultural integration into communities;
- Improving student accommodation, including the construction of purpose-built accommodation for students.
The importance of post-study work opportunities
Post-study work opportunities are key to the experience of international students in Australia, particularly those in the country’s very important vocational training (VET) sector, which enrolled nearly 150,000 international students in 2014. The draft strategy document points out:
“The international graduate outcomes and employer perceptions survey found that more than half of the international higher education and VET graduates working in the same field as their studies nominated relevant work experience as a factor that helped them get a job.”
The government’s draft strategy proposes to:
- Work with institutions to provide information about the work eligibility of international students and graduates to build employer awareness of the benefits of engaging international students in their organisations and help promote their employment;
- Gain a better understanding of the factors preventing students from participating in work experience programmes and post-study work arrangements;
- Work with institutions to keep international students well informed of their work rights under Australian law;
- Ensure Australia’s visa settings enable international students to gain valuable work experience both during and after study.
Broadening the list of source countries
International students in Australia mainly come from Asia, with “half of Australia’s international enrolments [coming] from just five countries – China, India, Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand.” We reported recently that China and India now account for 26.2% and 10.7%, respectively, of total international enrolment in the country.
The draft strategy calls for the recruitment of students from a much broader range of countries. It suggests that bilateral education agreements be struck with governments in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa and that scholarships be established for students from these regions.
Already, Australian enrolment data shows strong increases in 2014 from students outside the top five source countries. For YTD November 2014, for example, there were double-digit enrolment jumps for students from the following countries: Nepal (+27.2%), Brazil (+26.8%), Hong Kong (+22%), the Philippines (+21.1%), and Pakistan (+15.9%).
Increasing offshore educational activity
The draft document emphasises the opportunities inherent in many countries’ ambitions to upgrade the skills of their working-age populations, especially in Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and the Middle East. It notes:
“Australia’s VET system is well respected internationally and there are strong levels of interest in Australia’s approach to skills development and quality frameworks, which may provide exciting future opportunities for Australian VET stakeholders.”
The report also highlights the longer-term benefits of Australia’s assuming a prominent role in supporting the development of “industry-led regional occupational and training standards,” shaped as per the Australian model where the VET sector is aligned with industry structures:
“ … effective skills recognition and increased mobility of skilled labour within the region …. [which would also] encourage Australian business to expand in the Asia-Pacific region by enabling access to workers skilled to standards recognisable to Australian industry.”
The draft strategy outlines a series of initiatives to ensure Australian institutions – particularly in the VET sector – are supported in leveraging their strengths by exporting their training systems and products to other countries.
The long-anticipated report is meeting with enthusiasm from industry stakeholders, who are pleased that the government is introducing a bi-partisan international education strategy that will engage several government ministries.
International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) President Brett Blacker said, “IEAA has long been advocating for a whole-of-government approach to Australia’s international education industry. It’s promising to see this national strategy coming to life.”
“If we achieve the goals outlined in the draft strategy,” added Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson, “all Australian university graduates will be true global citizens – able to compete for the best jobs all over the world.”
The public is invited to provide input until the end of May, after which point the draft strategy will be refined through two roundtable sessions with education and industry stakeholders.