Thursday, February 4, 2021

Australian Universities Need to Sell the Value of International Students to Public and Government

Prof Nick Klomp, 
Professor Nick Klomp, Vice-Chancellor of CQ University has proposed a regional strategy for the return of international students ("International students need certainty, and so does our nation", February 1, 2021). That has merit, but I suggest Australian universities need to work much harder to convince the public, and governments, of the value these students to our community during a pandemic. Our universities also need to come up with a long term strategy which accepts the reality that students were studying mostly online, even before COVID-19.

Students are not going to wait around for Australia to open its borders: they are going to enroll elsewhere. In 2013, to learn how to teach international students, I became one myself, enrolled in Canada. It stuck me how similar the experience was to Australia, apart from some confusion over what a Loon was. ;-). 

While Australia's existing international students may be willing to make the best of the situation, their younger siblings will not. New students will take up invitations from other countries, which are welcoming them. Professor Klomp makes the case that International students injects billions into Australia’s economy. However, in my Canadian studies, I learned that emotion can be a bigger driver than hard-headed logic.

Australian sport is a much smaller export industry than education, but international sporting events have a strong pull on the Australian public and governments. Similarly, primary industry has a central place in the Australia ethos, with appeals from miners and farmers for international labor finding a receptive audience. 

If universities want the support of the Australia community and government, they need to appeal to emotions, as well as wallets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our universities have been key, not only through providing health experts, but also medical and support staff. This could be communicated to the public, along with the important role universities have in keeping our crops growing and our mines functioning.

Professor Klomp points out that most international graduates return home. But while they are here, and those who stay, make a valuable contribution to our nation. Would anyone argue that advanced students studying medicine, or engineering medical devices, should not be allowed into Australia during a pandemic?

Australia'a universities are comparable to those of other developed nations, and with the added attraction of our lifestyle, are popular with international students. However, our universities can't rely on this continuing. The "Come to Australia for a good degree and a good time" marketing will not work much longer. Most university education had moved online even before COVID-19. However, Australian universities were reluctant to admit this, which contributed to the difficulty of their responding to the pandemic.

Universities had spent years denying their students were mostly studying online, so when the students need to study entirely online, universities had no coherent strategy to deliver this. That lack of strategy will see a decline in Australian education, if not addressed.

Australia was doing well in comparison with countries such as the  UK as a popular student destination. However, this little like Ford Australia thinking they were doing well against GM Holden, before they were both forced out of making cars in Australia. Australian universities need to adopt new ways of providing a blended education, or they will be forced out of the international education business in the next ten years by new entrants. This can be addressed, in part, by lobbying government for student and work visas which keep Australia competitive and reflect the realities of how and where students study.

Professor Klomp's regional strategy for the return of international students has merit. The general public, and governments, will be far more welcoming of students in regional areas, than major capital cities. Charles Darwin University has shown this is possible. However, this can only be a short term measure. It is not going to insulate regional universities, or any universities, from the changes in the way education is provided.

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