Angel Calderon

The arrival of the long-awaited strategy from the federal government for international education is a welcome development. The strategy is likely to be seen as one of many steps in shaping Australia’s future education policies; not just over the next ten years, but over the next twenty to forty years.

There is likely to be debate in many circles whether the strategy is ambitious enough, whether the actions outlined in the strategy are sufficiently robust, and how the strategy links to various other federal government’s policy instruments (such as free trade agreements).

Geography plays a part in diversification

A key priority in the strategy is to reduce over-reliance on a number of countries, particularly China. This is not just a problem for Australia but for our main competitors. For example, 35 per cent of international students in higher education in the USA were from China in 2019, up from 29 per cent in 2013. By comparison, 31 per cent of international students in higher education in Australia were from China in 2019, down from 35 per cent in 2013. However, Australia’s reliance on its second key market (India) increased from 6 per cent in 2013 to 18 per cent in 2019 (UNESCO Institute for Statistics).

Over the past 20 years, Australian universities have greatly diversified the number of source countries for international student recruitment in higher education. In 1999, Australia recruited students from 81 countries compared to 189 for the United Kingdom and 193 for the United States (Calderon, 2010). By 2019, the number of countries Australia recruited students from were not much different to the United States or the United Kingdom, at over 190 countries.

During the mid-1990s, Australia’s top markets for international student recruitment were Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. So, the reliance on a few markets is really nothing new. What is new is the sheer volume of dependency on a few markets and the associated risks these involve.

If Australia were to be located closer to (or above) the equator, Australia would invariably have a different composition of main source countries for international student recruitment.

Australia is geographically situated in the East Asia and the Pacific region, which has become the epicentre of global higher education activity, driven by the steady growth of population and increased participation in tertiary education. East Asia and the Pacific is forecasted to remain the region with highest volume and share of enrolments in higher education to 2040 (Calderon, 2018).

Australia’s trade policy priorities have also contributed to this issue of concentration of international student recruitment in a few markets. Australia has wanted to have a leading role in the recent Asian transformation.

Concentration driven by demand

The demand for study abroad arises when countries are unable to meet national demand for delivering tertiary education to their own people. It also happens when people see that the institutions from their own countries do not have the quality of education they aspire to. In many cases people prefer to obtain university qualifications from foreign institutions as they might be deemed more reputable.

Twenty years ago, China had under 1,000 higher education institutions and about 7.3 million enrolments. By 2020, China had 2,688 institutions and more than 47 million enrolments. During this time the number of international students from China has gone from seven out of 100 in 1999 to 18 out of 100 in 2019 globally.

In this time, we have seen that China’s Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) at tertiary education level has gone from one of the lowest globally (6.40 in 1999) to 58.4 in 2020. China’s ratio stands where the United Kingdom stood in 2016 (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). This means we are likely to see fewer Chinese students choosing to study abroad in coming years. This is likely to considerably impact many countries that host international students, because the loss of a market the size of China will not be replaced by a single market, but many.

Enhancing diversification

Australia is signatory to several bilateral and regional trade agreements. For example, Australia is signatory to (or negotiating) trade agreements with various Latin American countries and bodies representing this region. These can be used to widen possibilities for increased provision of educational services both onshore and offshore, but also to address barriers which hinder diversification and the set of actions outlined in the strategy (e.g., recognition of Australian qualifications).

Over the years, I have argued that Latin America is a region which offers numerous possibilities for Australia and the provision of educational services, including student mobility, are key for strengthening bilateral trade relations between Australia and Latin  America nations.

Recently, Australia has signed a bilateral agreement with the United Kingdom, and this can also be used to enhance our educational services exports in the northern hemisphere.

Rethink growth approach

The strategy rests on a pillar of continued growth. Whilst it is great to see year on year growth in enrolments to ensure the viability of international education operations, there is also merit in Australian institutions attracting and recruiting top quality students. An emphasis on just growth in enrolments may lead to issues of quality of provision and potentially hinder social integration for some student cohorts. An emphasis on growth of quality applicants may be better suited to meet Australia’s skills needs, now and into the future.

Over the past twenty years, Australia has stepped ahead of France and Germany as the preferred destination for international students, and currently stands equal to the United Kingdom. Australia is likely to remain high in the list for prospective students once international travel resumes for the purpose of study. Australia is likely to be a challenger to be the number one host country for international students as we continue to plan, deliver, fund, and assure quality higher education courses across all institutions (regardless of the mode of delivery). To achieve this goal requires the state, market forces, and civil society supporting institutions. In turn, universities need to demonstrate they deserve the support they receive from taxpayers and the community at large. It is still early days to know the impact on the quality of education delivery which resulted in the loss of about 35,000 staff in the last 18 months.

Domestic and international student interaction

The strategy does not articulate what is the desirable level of growth for international students or how to achieve an improved interaction between domestic and international students. It only articulates that the government will work with the sector to develop guidelines to drive better diversity of international students and facilitate an optimal student mix. It remains to be seen whether this collaboration may become the Government’s trojan horse to determine the country of origin of the international students aligned with other concerns such as national security.

The proportion of international onshore students has increased from 19.8 per cent in 2013 to 27.1  per cent in 2019. Over the period 2013 to 2019, domestic students have seen an annual average growth of 1.7 per cent compared to 9.7 per cent for international students. Australia has to decide what proportion of international students is advisable to maintain a degree of financial control against sudden shocks like Covid. Discussion needs to occur on what levels are desirable and sustainable.

In 2020 I noted the Australian 18-64-year-old population is expected to rise minimally over the period from 2017 to 2030, with an average annual population growth of 1.2 per cent. The implications for universities of this reduced population growth are significant. The pandemic has also shown that blended learning is likely to remain in place, so we are likely to see a variety of approaches being supported and developed over coming years.

Sustainable development agenda

The strategy does not contain a single reference about how Australia and universities can further progress the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, it could have said how Australia is contributing to target 4.b of SDG 4, which deals with the number of scholarships available to developing countries for HE enrolment in specific fields within developed and developing countries. After all, Australia is depriving many countries of their own talent so that Australia needs are met.

It could have also brought into consideration how Australia can be an effective partner in progressing various targets of the sustainable development agenda, in which universities play a pivotal role and are a synergy between regional development and achievement of those goals.

As the ultimate goal of the sustainable development agenda is to mobilise efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and improve the quality of education for all, while ensuring that no one is left behind, Australian leaders are urged to consider ways which they can help others to step ahead.

 Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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