Pilot programmes to restart international education in Australia are approved — in the Northern Territory and South Australia.  But where’s a national plan?  International education is too consequential across the economy to ignore.

States and territories are well advanced in developing approval-ready plans for pilot programmes.

To international students, pilot programmes sound tentative, contingent, precarious. We’ve been on and off again for so long it’s like we’ve been hanging a “back after lunch” sign on the national front door.

Pilot programmes are an artefact from the earliest days of the pandemic.  As international borders progressively slammed shut in February, Australia’s international education sector began planning for safe pilots to return international students from July.

Then internal borders started going up, our collective immune system ticked over to parochialism, and Victoria’s second wave happened.  The national quarantine system was put under additional strain.  Victoria will be back in the national quarantine system later this month.

Through all of this the sector — particularly our universities working with state and territory governments — persevered with the complex work needed to progress planning for pilot programmes.

International education in Australia can justifiably celebrate the two approved pilots. The sector leaders we speak to across the country, are united in support for the NT and SA pilot programs. They are a “proof of concept” to demonstrate to governments and the community that we can safely restart Australia’s most important services export sector.

But, are pilot programmes enough to drive a recovery in international education given the moment we inhabit right now?

Pilot programmes are good. They’re important.  But they are not enough.

Not at this critical moment as current and prospective students weigh up their 2021 and 2022 study options, and Australia’s economy stumbles.

Pilot programmes are too narrowly focused to rebuild an international education sector that relies on pipelines of commencing students, studying across Australian Qualification Framework levels and provider types.

Pilot programmes will not inject the economic boost right across the economy at the scale small and big business require for stabilisation.

There are signs that some of the very students the pilot programmes are aimed at — continuing students stranded offshore and studying on-line — are packing their incomplete Australian qualifications in their carry-on luggage and cashing them in for credit at universities in other countries.

International students want certainty. They are not putting their futures on hold forever and are considering their study plans for 2021 and 2022 and beyond right now.

A national plan is not beyond Australia’s wit

We must rebrand pilot programmes as stage one of a national plan. Australia has been remarkably successful controlling COVID-19 infections.  We should be communicating this as loudly as we can.

If Canada’s government can wrangle the provinces — with their jurisdictional pride, varying COVID-19 infection rates and regulatory settings — and come up with a comprehensive national re-opening plan, it is not beyond Australia’s wit to do so.

If New Zealand can announce a pilot program to bring 250 PhD students back, on behalf of all NZ universities, it is not beyond Australia’s wit to do so.

If the United Kingdom can warmly welcome international students back, despite the prospect that they are heading straight into an extended lockdown on campus this winter, Australia is a way better option.

We need to speak with a voice that encompasses the circumstances of the whole.  There is so much goodwill for a national plan in international education that we must seize the moment.  Local governments, states and territories are largely onboard.  All education sectors are onboard.

Let’s add the most important voice: the Commonwealth.

 What a national plan needs

* rebrand the NT and SA pilot programs as the first stage of a national re-opening plan

* communicate that all states and territories have pilot programs ready to go

* the Commonwealth must take the lead in harmonising quarantine and re-entry arrangements for international students.We cannot risk becoming one destination nation with eight different arrangements.  Students won’t buy it

* recognise the nexus between national economic growth and international education: invite the Business Council of Australia, the Council of Small Business Australia, Tourism Australia and other business peaks into the conversation

* ramp up engagement with ELICOS, schools and pathway providers, and the TAFE and VET sectors: they are critical to prevent our 2020 deficit in commencing students becoming a multi-year recession

Australia has a good story to tell and a compelling education offering.  Our economy needs more consumers and temporary migrants to thrive post-pandemic.  Only one services export sector can do the heavy lifting we need to recover.  Let’s not squabble and vacillate; let’s act.

Jeffrey Smart is Director and co-Founder of specialist international education consultancy, The Lygon Group.


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