Imagine you started an airline in Australia.

Why would you do that? Well, because our continent is big. It’s faster to move things by air. And the meeting of people and the meeting of minds is productive. Productivity drives national wealth and everyone benefits.

Then imagine your airline was so successful that you decided it could offer services to international travellers. People could fly to and from Australia to make new connections, to exchange ideas, to trade, to drive productivity. Suddenly you were proudly running an international airline, one of the world’s best, one of the safest. Soon you were experimenting with some of the shiniest, most impressive aircraft in the world.

Now imagine that the government regulated domestic fares – all Australians would be able to travel at specified prices, the Australian government would guarantee it and pay half. But the airline could charge market rates to international travellers.

That seems a bit odd. I don’t think many airlines are regulated in quite that way. But our universities are. The price and indeed volume, number of students, is set for domestic students, but international students pay market rates for tuition. International students make the choice of whether to come to Australian universities, or go to other universities across the world, perhaps in England or in North America, great intellectual centres of the Western world. Importantly, international students don’t take places from Australians. The sector just expands, like the airline system.

It surprises some people that so many international students chose Australia for their education. We overtook the UK. It is not that we are cheaper, our fees are significant. It is more that students want to come. The education our universities offer is world class, and students like the welcoming nature of Australian society.

Who would have thought that Australia would emerge as a world leader in international education?

Socrates, Aristotle and Archimedes started the intellectual tradition for western peoples in Greece. Later people like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin were exemplars in the UK, and in the US great minds had a huge impact, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison – Einstein moved to Princeton. But from a student perspective it is Australia that is now an international destination of choice for many young people in the 21st century.

So, having managed to adapt to globalisation, here we are in COVID.

Our major Australian airline is struggling partly because it relies on international business that has collapsed. The $267m in JobKeeper payments are helping it buy time and soften the blows that will hit both the company and individual employees as everyone transitions through this painful crisis.

Our universities are struggling too. Universities didn’t receive JobKeeper. There is a new JobReady Graduates bill in Parliament that sounds like a similar thing but it mostly just stretches current funding so as to provide places for more Australian students. Providing more places sounds good, so there is some support for this but it is complicated by the fact that there will be less funding per student. One interesting thing about JobReady Graduates is that it aims to support teaching rather than research costs. A research stimulus package could be the perfect solution and I know many good people are looking at that.

Sustaining Australian universities is good policy.

Many countries wish to emulate Australia’s success in international education. In economic terms it contributes nearly $40bn a year to the Australian economy and is often listed as our third leading export, but beyond that let us not forget how influential and positive our international education services are.

Sometimes governments worry about foreign interference or indoctrination, that the ideas and agendas of international governments may be pushed upon Australians. On the other hand Australian academics have been exploring ideas with students from across the world for the last 30 years or more. Millions of students have studied in Australia, gone home, and now have leading roles in their home countries. They are aware of Australian values and appreciate our perspectives. This shared understanding is sometimes called “soft diplomacy” but I will just call it international understanding. Governments have always valued student exchanges, that’s why Australia participated in the Colombo Plan from the 1950s and former foreign minister Julie Bishop started the New Colombo Plan.

Australia should be so proud. We built a world class airline and we built a world class university sector. Our airlines fly in visitors on wonderful new planes like the A380 and Dreamliner. Our universities teach students from Australia and the world in shiny new laboratories, and other teaching spaces whose renovation was long overdue but was supported by the Higher Education Endowment Fund and Education Infrastructure Fund from both sides of politics.

Just now COVID has dropped a bomb on universities and airlines. But they will bounce back. The pipeline of students has been interrupted but a backlog bulge is building up and after the pandemic I predict a boom in enrolments (and in other life rites of passage that were put on hold, like weddings!). When we emerge – and we may well do that as a result of the vaccine developed by the University of Queensland – then Australia must be ready to serve ourselves and the world via our airlines and our universities.

Both sides of Australian politics can be proud of how they have helped Australian universities become world class. The JobReady Graduate package considers teaching costs and if it is supplemented with an investment in research (like Howard’s Backing Australia’s Ability or Rudd’s Sustainable Research Excellence) then universities will continue to contribute to our prosperity, to keep us strong and safe in a dangerous world, and we can remain confident as we move through the Asian century.

Knowledge is power and, like an airline, it can take us anywhere. It is up to us. We just have to make a choice about whether we want to invest in our universities or let them falter and fall, like aeroplanes out of the sky. In some ways we are all passengers on the knowledge economy jet and at this moment we are all bracing for headwinds.

Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic



to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education