Why Australia shouldn't abandon international education

12 November 2020
Argument offered by critics of Chinese international education is a "false binary"

The proposition that Australia's public universities should retreat from the international education market, including China, and focus largely or even solely on domestic students is based on a "false binary", according to a new discussion paper.

Authored by Professor John Shields from the University of Sydney Business School, the paper outlines why, in the absence of a major increase in federal government funding, a retreat from the international education market is not viable for the sector.

“Critics of the international student cohort, particularly students from China, are asking the wrong questions and failing to offer viable solutions that will ensure the sector will flourish in the future,” Professor Shields, Academic Director (International) at the Business School, said.

“The key is not whether our public universities should be providers of international education, but how we do this in a way that services the needs of both domestic and international students.”

The paper, Australian Universities, International Students and China, examines the Australian higher education sector’s involvement in international coursework education, and excludes analysis of academic research engagement.

Higher education: Australia’s third largest export

As part of a series of short reports prepared at the request of the Asia Taskforce, an initiative of the Business Council of Australia and Asia Society Australia, the discussion paper recognises the overreliance on students from particular markets, such as China.

It also recommends ten key actions the sector and government can take to achieve diversity and sustainability in the context of seismic shifts in learning needs, educational practice and pandemic-induced constraints on global mobility.

One of the objectives of the taskforce is to identify barriers to success in the Asia region. As Australia’s third largest export, higher education was of particular interest.

“Both the sector and the government should embrace the ‘high road’ and work in partnership to recover the significant loss of international students not only due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the declining Commonwealth revenue for universities,” Professor Shields said.

Diversify international markets: key recommendation

Among the paper’s ten recommendation is for the government to sponsor tri-partite trade and education missions to target countries.  

“While some state governments, along with Commonwealth bodies like Austrade/DFAT, have been quite supportive of the sector’s outreach to markets in China, India, Indonesia and Latin America, if the sector is to recover, it will need both tactical and moral support from both government and business,” Professor Shields explained.

What is clear is that Australia’s economic recovery from the coronavirus-induced recession depends in part on ensuring that we have a vibrant higher education sector.
Professor Greg Whitwell, Dean of the Business School

Professor Shields points to the example set by the UK, where the British Council organises regular international information and recruitment events promoting UK universities.

Other recommendations include diversifying the international student markets and sharpening the focus on all-round quality of the Chinese student intake.

“There is some truth to the claim that admission standards for students from China and elsewhere are too lax and this shortcoming demand immediate attention. We should aim higher. There is scope to recruit a higher proportion of students to master’s programs from graduates from the top decile of Chinese universities,” said Professor Shields.

“There are some stellar examples across the sector of initiatives designed to enrich both the learning experience and the job-readiness of international students. For instance, the University of Sydney Business School’s award-winning JobSmart program, launched in 2015 to deepen opportunities for Chinese and other international postgraduate students, is now being mainstreamed through the School’s pre-experience masters programs. However, more can and should be done across the sector to enrich the learning experience of our international students.

“One under-utilised resource with enormous potential to support a ‘high road’ agenda are the hundreds of thousands of Australian university alumni around the world; alumni who are both proud of their association with the sector and immensely keen to assist.

“To not enlist their energy and support, and to not reposition the sector to survive and succeed in the post-COVID world, would be to squander a rare opportunity to guarantee the future success of our universities.”

Dean of the Business School, Professor Greg Whitwell, is an advisor on the Asia Taskforce and added: “Our international students bring unique experiences and skills, which enrich the classroom experience for the whole cohort. Higher education is one of Australia’s biggest exports and it has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic.

“What is clear is that Australia’s economic recovery from the coronavirus-induced recession depends in part on ensuring that we have a vibrant higher education sector, and this simply cannot happen without the continuing presence of large cohorts of international students.”

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