AUSTRALIA: Long history of international higher education

Australia has a long history of international higher education. From humble beginnings, today Australia is one of the world's top study destinations, international education is worth AUS$19 billion (US$19.3 billion) annually and it is the country's third largest industry after coal and iron ore, placing it far ahead of others such as tourism.

The nation's elite universities, political stability and vibrant cultural offerings have made its international education industry a force to be reckoned with.

But a spate of violent attacks in 2009 against Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney cast a pall on this success story, the 2011 Association of International Education Administrators annual conference in San Francisco was told.

The attacks, coupled with the global recession, a strong Australian dollar and lack of government regulation, has led to a significant drop in international student enrollment.

Dubbed 'the perfect storm' by universities, the crisis led to the first drop in foreign student enrollment since 1994, from 630,633 in 2009 to 619,119 in 2010, according to Australia Education International. The number of Indian students, previously one of the largest demographics, dropped by 85%.

The response to the crisis was swift and far-reaching. Several initiatives were launched, such as a national student safety campaign, ministerial task-forces on international education and the closure of low quality private colleges.

The higher education sector also dismantled its original internationalisation strategy, which was mostly focused on international student recruitment, and took a more multi-faceted approach, emphasising quality and diversity, in part to quell concerns about the attacks on Indian students.

The crisis, said Jennie Lang, pro-vice chancellor of the University of South Wales' international office, "was an invaluable lesson for all of us. There was a rapid response nationwide." For the first time, she told the conference, the government paid attention to the needs of international students.

Despite the drop, students still appear to have a positive view on studying 'down under': 86% of a sample said they were satisfied with their study experience in Australia, according to a 2010 national survey of international students - though clearly the study conducted by Universities Australia had an interest in portraying a positive view.

There are currently 1.1 million students in Australia, and roughly 600,000 of them are international students, according to Australia Education International's 2010 report. International students make up a substantial 3% of the country's total 22 million population.

The internationalisation of Australia's education system can be traced back to 1950, when the Colombo Plan, an intergovernmental organisation aimed at strengthening social and economic development in the Asia-Pacific region, was implemented.

"Australia's international engagement was built off this aid relationship," said Mark Darby, education counsellor at the Australian embassy, at the AIEA conference. In the 1960s, Australian universities engaged with emerging institutions in the region to help develop curricula and research labs.

Fast forward to 1986, when the Australian government opened its doors to international students and allowed universities to accept full-fee paying foreigners. A massive recruitment and marketing drive followed, leading to 2,000% growth in international students from 1986 to 2006.

"The government had an export focus but universities also invested heavily in support of international students and did everything possible to provide a broad learning experience," said Lang. "Australia started emerging as an international environment."

Universities undertook sweeping initiatives, which included dedicated student services, the introduction of two or three semesters to facilitate international student enrollment, and the expansion of academic programmes to cater to a more diverse student body.

The University of New South Wales in Sydney, for example, has an internationalisation strategy driven by four components: global research, education, students and engagement. Some 11,800 of its 51,000 students are foreign, many of whom were recruited through the university's user-friendly, information-packed international website.

New South Wales also supports student exchanges, has 600 formal inbound and outbound exchanges with more than 200 universities worldwide, and houses more than 500 study abroad students each year. It offers six dual degree programmes with overseas universities, and 265 research fellows have been appointed in some of Asia's leading universities since 2008.

However, remaining a top study destination has its challenges. The 2009 student crisis aside, issues of sustainability and quality arise.

"When you start talking that number of international students, the question is: 'How do you manage that kind of growth, how do you provide support to maintain that?'" said Darby.

Another pressing challenge is the country's difficult and expensive student visa system. An Australian student visa can take up to 12 weeks to be processed and costs $550, compared to a US student visa, which is generally processed within two to 10 days and costs only $140, according to a 2010 report by the Australian Technology Network of Universities.

"It is a work in progress," said Darby. "There needs to be an increased engagement between the government and universities, and we need to continue to work to improve international education in the country."

Now Australia is encouraging a global outlook across a range of activities broader than international student recruitment. Universities are engaging in more global university and professional networks, as well as undertaking research that will have a far-reaching global impact, in areas such as climate change and sustainable energy and environments.

The aim is also to nurture global citizens, something that international students can play a significant part in.

"The presence of international students on our campus helps us achieve our aspirations to produce global citizens, where they are able to contribute in some way to a peaceful environment wherever they are," said Lang. "This is something that anchors international education at Australian universities."

There is still a situation that must happen and that cannot be avoided by the Government of Australia i.e to reduce the cost of a student visa.

Salim Bakar Hilal