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Australian conference highlights new thinking about international education

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The 2021 AIEC conference revealed opportunities for student recruitment and services now and after the pandemic
  • IDP Connect research identified important developing international student segments worthy of targeting with incentives and strong academic and career supports
  • The option of students studying online in their home countries then travelling to a destination country gained traction over the course of the pandemic and could grow in popularity

The 2021 Australian International Education Conference (AIEC) hosted more than 1,200 delegates last week and featured more than 70 sessions focused on the global international education marketplace and how it has changed because of COVID. Many of the sessions also looked at the challenges and opportunities for Australian educators specifically.

A prevalent theme at the conference was the idea of the need for the industry to “recover – but recover better” by reflecting on lessons learned during the pandemic and what they suggest for how international students should be recruited, hosted, and supported going forward.

Challenges have inspired new opportunities

Australian universities and schools have been exceptionally pressed to figure out ways of maintaining current international students (many of them stranded overseas and studying online) and encouraging commencements. Unlike their counterparts in other leading destinations such as Canada, the UK, and the US, Australian educators haven’t had the relative luxury of waiting for a while until students return to campus for in-person/hybrid learning. Borders have been closed to international students for 18 months, far longer than they were in North America and Europe.

No one would argue that this has been extremely difficult, manifested in painful job and revenue losses, a reduced competitive position, and a struggle to reassure international students stranded overseas.

However, at the AIEC conference, it was also evident was that Australian educators have used these months of disruption to experiment with alternative business models and recruitment strategies that will serve them not just now, but also in a post-COVID international education landscape.

A recurring point of discussion at the conference was the number of new study “hubs” located in Asian countries that Australian institutions and regional associations have established independently or with foreign partners. These physical spaces – characterised by good Internet connectivity, the presence of other students, and face-to-face academic and career support – help international students to stay connected and motivated while they study remotely.

Quan Dang, regional manager for the University of Auckland’s Southeast Asia international office, told Times Higher Education that a study hub’s social aspect is crucial: “It is a dedicated place for students to meet with their peers, study together and get learning and career support.” Research has shown that important pain points for international students studying online include lack of peer interaction, difficulty staying motivated, inability to find a suitable study space, frustration at not receiving individualised support, and technological/Internet challenges.

Because such a massive proportion of Australia’s international students are studying online at the moment, keeping them engaged – and enrolled – is of the utmost priority, and Australia’s investment in study hubs will likely remain highly important going forward. This is because of the growth of two relatively new international student segments:

  1. Students who are willing to begin studies online if they can eventually travel to a campus in their destination of choice;
  2. Students who are willing to study online if they receive incentives to do so, such as lower tuition or post-study work rights in a destination country (even if their programmes were delivered totally online and delivered remotely in their home country).

Popularity of remote study may rise after the pandemic

In a AIEC conference session entitled “Embracing a student-led approach to diversification,” IDP Connect IQ client director Andrew Wharton – joined by host Melissa Banks, Head of International Education Centre of Excellence at Australian Trade and Investment Commission, Austrade – presented new research to further fuel Australian educators’ thinking about how to “recover better” after the pandemic.

The research consisted of an IDP survey conducted among 3,650 prospective students from 55 countries who were just beginning to look at study abroad options. The survey revealed that while the overwhelming majority wanted an on-campus experience (81%), a not-insignificant proportion (18%) would either (1) begin studies in their home countries or (2) remain in their home countries to study for a foreign degree (online or at a branch campus).

Mr Wharton noted that cost savings, flexibility of learning environment, flexibility in study timetable, and lower admissions requirements were key advantages of online study perceived by international students.

The survey respondents who were considering studying for a foreign degree in their home country or starting online then travelling to an overseas campus identified several important conditions that made them likely to choose these study options. The most influential factor was lower tuition fees, with 33% of those considering only studies in their home country finding this attractive and 43% of those considering an online start to studies similarly impressed.

The research also found that the availability of post-study work rights, immigration opportunities, and study hubs also increased the attractiveness of a foreign degree taken at least partly in the student’s home country.

Incentivising different segments could expand total pool of international enrolments

The IDP research highlights that the global international student market has developed more segments as a result of COVID – and as such that it is expanding. International students are now accustomed to the possibility of hybrid learning, of altered start dates, and of the potential for borders to close. Most ideally want an on-campus experience– but a significant proportion will consider blended delivery/experience models if these models offer them attractive benefits – such as affordability – especially since online education has become infinitely more sophisticated and accepted by employers.

Mr Wharton told the AIEC conference audience that there is a definite opportunity for Australia to reclaim market share of international students by considering new business and delivery models (with branch campuses seen as a competitive strength) but that there “is not a moment to lose:”

“Institutions and organisations that can offer clear pathways to employment and migration will be popular … [consider] providing access to infrastructure, pricing strategies, offering micro-credentials with credits that can count towards a degree.”

According to Mr Wharton, the “start online, travel later” model might be a “major advantage for Australia,” especially if those students who begin studies online in their home countries are well supported through infrastructure such as study hubs.

International branch campuses and pop-up study hubs poised for growth

For educators everywhere, the travel restrictions entailed by COVID provided a massive shock whose accompanying disruption will not be temporary. The idea of “diversification” has taken on more complexity. Institutions remain aware of the need to diversify the number of nationalities on their campuses, but they are also looking more intently at how to diversify their delivery models. The limitations of the bricks-and-mortar campus have been exposed, and many institutions are developing or refining strategies for enrolling, supporting, and delivering content to international students beyond their borders.

An article published earlier this year in University World News summarises it well:

“The events of the past year have emphasised the strategic value of having a physical presence in multiple countries. In an increasingly unstable world filled with geo-political jockeying and the lingering and looming pandemic threats, universities with international campuses are likely to look for ways to leverage them more strategically. In addition, universities without international campuses may look to develop physical presences as a strategy to mitigate future threats.”

For additional background, please see:


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