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AUSTRALIA: Tackling the fall in international education
In the two decades after 1990 the number of international students in Australian higher education grew by an annual average of 12% plus. This was an extraordinary rate of sustained expansion for any social sector.

Between 1990 and 2007 international students in higher education rose from 25,000 to 254,414, one in five of all onshore university students. Four in five of these international students were from Asia.

Total national exports of higher education, vocational education, schooling and English-language courses were AUD18 billion (US$17.5 billion) in 2009 and student numbers in all sectors peaked at 630,000 in 2009.

By then education, a commercial export industry that did not exist until the last 20% of Australia's history, had become the nation's largest services export and fourth largest export (briefly third) after coal, iron ore and gold, ahead of tourism and all specific sectors in agriculture and manufacturing.

By 2008 Australia was the world's fifth largest exporter of tertiary education with 6.9% of all foreign students, though Australia's population was much smaller than that of the other major education export nations.

In higher education in Australia in 2008 a dozen institutions enrolled more than 8,000 international students, more than in any American doctoral university, led by RMIT University with an incredible 22,497 international students and Monash with 19,079, of whom 13,131 were onshore, the largest group in any Australian university. Total national tuition revenues in higher education were $2.6 billion, 14.9% of all income.

These are all spectacular numbers with no equivalent in any other higher education system in the world.

The first half of 2009 was the highpoint of the export industry. It seemed then that international student numbers, export revenues, university budget injections and the migration of international graduates would each go on expanding forever, with international student numbers ballooning to half or more of the total student body: the demography of urban Asia recast in miniature on the far underside of the world.

Commencements began to slow in the second half of 2009, offshore visas started to fall and from the second half of 2010 onwards, international student numbers began to trend sharply down, first in vocational education and training and English language colleges and then in higher education.

From the point of view of the many employees working in international education, not to mention the educational institutions and local economies dependent upon the export sector, these trends are of much concern. It has been estimated by the International Education Association of Australia that in 2010 the sector generated at least 125,000 Australian jobs per annum.

The long boom fluctuated but the growth remained positive. It lasted right through all the many changes in the Australian dollar, the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, and the first stage of the 2008-10 global financial crisis.

Supply-regulated growth

Growth was sustained because contrary to general belief it was primarily supply-regulated, not demand-regulated. The size of the Asian middle classes continually expanded through the two decades of growth, especially in China and India. Correspondingly the number of applications to study in Australia also grew. Demand was always well in excess of the supply of places.

In sum, the number of enrolled students was determined by two factors on the supply side: (1) the willingness of universities to take them; and (2) the willingness of the federal immigration department, now designated as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), to grant visas.

The growth tendency shuddered to a halt in 2010, though this will not fully show itself in universities until 2011 and more so 2012. There was a reduction in demand in South Asia following the patterned violence against South Asian students in Melbourne in 2008-10, media coverage of this in India and the desultory response of the Australian authorities.

But despite the dip in South Asian demand, the change was again primarily driven on the supply side. Education institutions continued to be dependent on growth in international student numbers and still held the door wide open.

The change in supply resulted from dramatic shifts in Australia's migration policy and regulation. This was triggered by three factors, only two of which were acknowledged publicly.

The first factor was migration-related education sector 'scams' involving education agents and students from South Asia. There was a blowout of migration-oriented international students in certain vocational programmes, and instances of corrupt practices and dubious educational provision. This triggered a belated crackdown by the federal government in 2010.

The second and partly related factor was concern in DIAC and elsewhere in government that the mix of skilled migrants entering Australia following graduation as international students was not optimal. For example, many graduates lacked adequate English proficiency.

The third and unacknowledged factor, one that could be inferred from the 2010 election campaign, was migration resistance in pockets of the electorate.

Policy changes resulted and the federal government stated that it would tighten regulation of marginal colleges and improve 'quality', and that new visa rules would decouple demand for Australian education from demand for migration. It is doubtful if the policy changes will achieve either of these goals.

What has happened is that there has been a big fall in numbers of students coming from India and numbers from China are also expected to decline because of the changes in visa regulation and a drop in both visa applications and visas granted. It's a good time to review the dynamics of Australia's international education.

Key tensions in international education in Australia

Australian international education illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of a commercial approach. It has also been shaped by Australia's global position and positioning strategy.

International education has generated great wealth in the export nation. But despite the obvious success of the programme it has been constrained by unresolved problems that have inhibited its evolution to a higher level and undermined its long-term sustainability.

There are five key tensions in international education in Australia:

  • Tension within national government, between immigration policy and education export policy.
  • Tension within Australian higher education, between the education export policy and the domestic education and research missions of universities.
  • Tension in the global engagement of higher education institutions, between commercial exploitation of Asia and maximising Australia's position vis à vis global knowledge flows.
  • Tension in the lives of international students, between their role as economic consumers, and their larger human rights and security.
  • And the 'master' tension, the permanent contradiction between national political economy and the global public good.

    Two possible courses of action

    In the face of these tensions there are two moves that can be made, when national governments such as the Australian government find themselves in an enlightened moment.

    The first move is to re-norm international education. International students are not people in educational, social or cultural 'deficit'. They should be understood as strong human agents, deciding for themselves, managing complex personal changes, and engaged in self-formation through education and global mobility. Their challenges and achievements mostly exceed those of local students.

    They should be accepted as persons with the full set of human rights, whatever country they are in. Nations should extend to non-citizen international students the same rights and entitlements as citizen students. International students should be quasi-citizens for the duration of their stay. (We might make exceptions in a small number of designated areas where national treatment might be warranted, such as the right to vote in national elections).

    To those who object on the grounds that international students are not lifetime taxpayers, and on that ground should receive a lesser entitlement, it can be pointed out that international students do pay taxes and extra tuition in the country of education - and they would not receive lifetime benefits. The arrangement would stand only for the duration of their stay as students.

    The second move is to make this concrete by developing a global protocol for the empowerment and protection of mobile students. Sending/importing countries could negotiate with the receiving/exporting government a set of principles that provide for the rights and entitlements of the students.

    This protocol would be developed on the basis of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with specifications referring to areas such as education, housing, crisis support and intercultural relations.

    In legal form the protocol would be akin to the UN Declaration, which incidentally was piloted through the UN in 1948 by the then Australian minister for foreign affairs and chair of the UN General Assembly, HV Evatt.

    It would not take the form of a legislated Bill of Rights, a conception yet to take root in Australia. Rather it would function as an advisory statement of standards for policy and provision in international education. Nevertheless, this would be a significant policy step with potential resonances in domestic affairs in Australia, and potential flow-on effects in relation to policy on refugees.

    The protocol would begin with a preamble establishing basic principles. Then it would list the rights provided to international students enrolled in Australian education institutions including access to justice and rights of property ownership; a safe and non-discriminatory environment, and privacy, freedom from harassment and freedom of movement and residence; access to work and fair conditions of work; access to health, welfare, transport, educational and accommodation-related services; and freedoms such as religion, civil and political association, freedom of opinion and of expression.

    To specify these rights is not to imply that the entitlements of international students should be limited to the listed areas; nor to imply that the rights concerned are currently denied to international students. For example, those students have freedom of religion now. Rather the intention is to move beyond convention to establish clearly in the eyes of the world an official Australian commitment to normalising these conditions for temporary migrant students.

    Rights should be distinguished from service provision. The protocol would go on to list a minimum list of specific services provided to international students, including the provision of specific information, access to safe accommodation, and access to communication-related services.

    The protocol would close with broad undertakings in relation to implementation, a large issue in itself and one not further explored here, except to state that it would be essential to create machinery that would incorporate both federal and state governments, relevant educational providers, community-based welfare and other relevant non-government organisations.

    Such protocols have the potential to become seen as best practice in international education. If enough such agreements are developed around the world on a bilateral basis, this begins to create momentum for the emergence of an informal global standard subject to widespread policy imitation.

    Thus the regime of international student security and rights could be constructed by an incremental process of voluntary agreement, whereby each nation makes its education system into a globally responsible space.

    Going further, when enough international agreement has been secured in this manner, eventually the rights of international students could be regulated by a global agency.

    * Simon Marginson is a professor of higher education in the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.

    * This is an edited and much-abridged version of his article, "It's a Long Way Down", in the latest edition of Australian Universities Review, volume 53, number 2, 2011.


    Some Australians' resistance to high levels of migration and associated numbers of international students has been acknowledged explicitly by the relevant minister.

    All of the rights proposed for the a global protocol for the empowerment and protection of mobile students are already provided by Australian domestic law and some are additionally protected by international law that applies in Australia.

    The issue is not the provision of rights but their enforcement.

    Gavin Moodie
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