Monday, September 25, 2017

International Students Not a Problem for Australian Universities But Numbers Will Drop

Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson from the China Matters think tank ask "Is there a problem with Chinese International Students?". They apparently think there is a problem, but I am not so sure. Australian universities are overly dependent on fees from international students, but that market will shrink to about one-tenth the current size over the next five to ten years, with competition from domestic Chinese universities and e-learning. The problem of other nations seeking to monitor and control the actions of their students in Australia is something our universities and government learned to deal with decades ago, as part of the Colombo Plan.

Gill and Jakobson point out that students from the People's Republic of China (PRC) make up about 27.5% of international enrollments in Australian higher education and more than 60% in Canberra's institutions. There are concerns that these students do not have adequate English, resulting in poorer educational outcomes and they may have less contact with Australians. Also, there is the concern the PRC government seeks to "influence academic discourse" and discourage its students from "speaking critically about the PRC".

The large numbers of international students, I suggest, is a temporary phenomenon, which will correct itself over the next five to ten years. China and India will continue to build up their own higher education institutions, so they can supply domestic demand and offer low-cost education to developing nations. Australian institutions will still have a demand for high-quality specialist programs, but the bulk demand for business and computing courses will cease. A reasonable expectation would be for international student numbers in Australia to be one-tenth the current level within ten years. That will present a problem for those undertaking the bulk of the teaching on short term and casual contracts, but not for the universities themselves. Some universities will have a problem having over-invested in accommodation for international students, but this can be re-purposed as affordable housing.

Australian campus based courses will also face competition from their own and others e-learning programs. Australian Universities are in the last phase of moving from lecture-based to blended education. Students no longer sit and listen to a professor speaking in a lecture hall, but instead watch a video and then attend a face-to-face interactive class, working with other students. As the demand for vocationally relevant education continues, there will be less need for the face-to-face part of the blended course to be on campus, or in Australia. This will present a problem for educators used to delivering face-to-face education. However, there is time to train the next generation of academics in e-learning techniques.

While the number of international students on Australian campuses will drop by 90%, the number of International students enrolled and the revenue from then will not necessarily diminish. Provided they can maintain high standards, Australian institutions will be able to continue to charge a premium for on-campus and on-line international programs.

International students previously saw study in Australia as a way into a western workplace. However, with the rise in the Chinese and Indian economies, it will be more attractive to serve an apprenticeship in those environments. Even if formally enrolled in an Australian university it will not be so desirable, nor necessary, for the student to visit Australia. As an example of this, I spent three years as a student at Athabasca University in Canada, without ever visiting the campus in Canada. Studies were on-line with practical assignments based on my local workplace.

The issue of international students relating to the Australian community and of monitoring by their governments is one which was faced by universities with the Colombo Plan from the 1950s. Daniel Oakman discusses these issues in his book "Facing Asia:A History of the Colombo Plan", particularly Chapter 6 "Face to Face with Asia". The Australian Government and the universities managed to deal with these issues decades ago, using approaches similar to those now suggested by Gill and Jakobson. These issues were normally dealt with quietly, without publicity, but are documented in the academic literature and it is surprising this was not referenced by Gill and Jakobson.

Gill and Jakobson recommend specifying a "minimum scope of engagement between Australian and international students in after-class activities and the local community". However, my experience of being an International student suggests that something more focused will be needed. As a student, I tended to only engage with other students when I was required to do so as a part of the course assessment and then only with students who were most like me. The ability to engage with other cultures, I suggest, should be made an explicit part of the student's training, with specified skills and assessment.

As well as for international students, skills in working with those from other cultures could be useful for domestic Australian students, who increasingly will be working internationally. This could be useful in changing the domestic student's (and some staff) perception of international students from an encumbrance to a valuable source of learning.

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