Finally says Dirk Mulder, international education is on the agenda


There has been a week of announcements and headlines talking up International education, which makes a nice change

The NSW Government has come out again in favour of bringing back internationals outside of quarantine caps while Minister Tudge, yes he lives, has started to discuss the big topic of the future of international education in Australia.

But what does it mean and is there any hope for movement any time soon?

Firstly, the NSW Government announcement. The new talk stems from an expression of interest (tender) that went live on the state Treasury website on March 31, closing April 12. The expression of interest states “The return of international students as soon as possible is vital for retaining jobs in our education sector, and for the economy more broadly. International education is our second largest export, generating $14.6bn in exports annually before the pandemic and supporting nearly 100,000 jobs in NSW. We estimate in 2021 we have already lost one third of our international student base.”

This is a good sign for the international education sector as the feds have said for some time that the states, which are responsible for quarantine arrangements, need to drive the return.

However, an expression of interest is only that, without the full support of the NSW Chief Health Officer and CMM has no idea what Kerry Chant thinks about this EOI. Remember, it was the NSW Government that last year announced international students were a priority only to backtrack a week later (CMM 23 Nov 2020).

Secondly, Minister Tudge has been out and about, discussing the future of International Education via the launch of consultations for the “Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030”.

Studying the implications of the bureaucratic bumf, the key messages appear to be;

* welcoming students back as soon as the COVID-19 situation allows

It’s a very good point and one that has attracted much speculation. The sector has been crying out for government certainty as to when this may in the future plans but thus far its pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

 * promoting diversity in International student populations

CMM takes this to mean “don’t rely on China.” While diversity is seen as key to sustainability, this is a case where a bird in the hand is really worth two in the bush. To expect institutions after a decade of diminishing government funding to give up on enrolments to satisfy diversity objectives may not be feasible. CMM is interested to see how this plays out.

 * targeting international student enrolments towards future skills needs

CMM wonders if this is preparatory to linking higher education and migration, like the Kiwi’s and Canadians do (CMM 11 March 2021). It makes sense that international students who have invested in needed skills are given priority to use them in Australia. But tell that to the plethora of accounting qualified taxi drivers. The issue here isn’t at the front end, recruiting and educating students, it’s ensuring they are moving into the requisite skilled areas. Something federal and state sponsorship programmes have not done well.

 * developing new delivery models

The traditional “on-shore” only model is going to get a shakeup. For institutions that already operate off-shore and on-line it will come as no surprise that diversifying and risk-managing resulting income streams should be a priority. While those dependant on largely on-shore students alone will now get a shock, not all is lost.  This space provides opportunity according to the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education (CMM 4 Feb 2021) but it needs to be done well and there are still hurdles to address.

So, while the NSW government is publicly stating international students are important, there is no apparent implementation date. This, combined with Minister Tehan’s consultation process, means the road to recovery and certainty remain some way away.

It is, however, refreshing to see governments talking up international education and it is importance to our country and communities.

Dirk Mulder is CMM’s international education correspondent