Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education and Training, has pointed to "... surging international student numbers.. " at Australian institutions, up 15% on March 2016. However is this growth rate sustainable? Can Australian institutions provide instructors, facilities and the quality of education, with this growth rate? What are the risks from depending on students from a few countries?
The International Student Data Monthly Summary from the Department of Education and Training shows 30% of the students are from China and 11% India. A dispute with China in particular (such as conflict over the South China Sea), resulting in a loss of students, would have a significant effect on Australian institution's finances.
While universities get most of the media attention, this is only just only half of the international students at 54%. Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector makes up 23%. While VET is growing at the same rate as universities (15%), I suggest there is scope for more growth in this sector. The challenge is to provide VET training which governments and employers in the region will find credible. If Australian VET providers can find a way to convince stakeholders that students actually undertook the training and are competent to the level certified, this sector could expand. This may require techniques similar to the livestock export industry, where there is individual tracking.
Just as a consumer of premium beef can see which farm a steak came from and the details of the farmer, credible VET certification may require the employer to see who trained the applicant in what, when and perhaps even video of the applicant undertaking their training and assessment.
The other threat to Australian's inbound international education industry is, of course, on-line learning. At present on-line courses, are not seen as a premium product, with questions over the quality of the education and the integrity of the assessment system. The VET sector could help change this perception, with its results based approach to training and assessment and flexibility.
Australian universities have recently experimented with vocationally relevant skills, micro-credentials and competency based assessment, but these have been routine in the VET sector for decades. It is much easier to convince an employer than a VET graduate has the required skills for a job, where there is a list of skills specific to that job, every one of which the student has been certified competent in. In contrast, a university graduate may, or may not, have been tested against some of a list of vague aspirational goals listed for a degree.
However, Australia suffers from its divided higher education system which sees universities separated from VET and no education focused institutions to fill the gap in between. Solving this problem is the key to further expansion of international education and lowering the cost of domestic higher education.