Strategy aims to attract more foreigners to study and stay on

Australia is among the most popular study destinations in the world for international students and over the past 50 years, more than 2.5 million foreigners have enrolled in the nation’s universities, vocational education institutions and schools.

Now the federal government has set out a Draft National Strategy for International Education to boost international student numbers so as to again have 631,000 studying with Australian education institutions here and overseas as was the case in 2009, instead of the 590,000 enrolled last year

Six years ago, international students were contributing A$17 billion (US$13 billion) a year to the national economy, a huge sum which fell to some A$14 billion in 2011 as enrolments plummeted. But they began climbing again and now student contributions are back to more than A$15 billion.

Higher education has continued to be the big drawcard for foreign students and their numbers grew by 11% in the five years to 2014, whereas enrolments in vocational education colleges plummeted by 28% and in schools collapsed even further with a 32.5% drop.

Powder-puff narrative

Unfortunately, much of the content in the 80 pages of the draft strategy is puffery, with claims by the government of how it is promoting international education and the benefits that flow from it.

“Australian education institutions provide a large range of education services overseas through 31 offshore university campuses and hundreds of partnerships across all areas of education,” the document boasts.

“Australian schools also engage globally through hundreds of sister school and other partnership arrangements [while] Australian education also reaches out online. From full degrees to massive open online courses, our institutions offer a broad mix of quality content and innovative presentation that raises Australia’s reputation for education and research excellence...”

And so it goes. Yet this is a government that had proposed slashing its spending on universities in its first budget last year, with the intention of then allowing vice-chancellors to make up for the shortfall by increasing tuition fees.

This would have pushed Australian students further into debt under the government’s loan scheme and left them owing vast sums to get a degree, resulting in many billions of dollars that would never be repaid.

Antagonistic Senate rejects Pyne's reforms

The Senate rejected the government’s plans, forcing Education Minister Christopher Pyne to modify the plans although his opponents in the Senate have yet to approve them, leaving the issue of funding and fees still unresolved.

Meantime, the draft strategy notes that the global competition for international students has become fiercer with the US, “already the world’s leading destination for globally mobile students”, poised to become a more active recruiter.

“A forecast from the US Department of Education that domestic college enrolments will slow through to 2022 is likely to result in more institutions looking to international students to fill the additional places,” the document states.

“After the National Association for College Admission Counseling lifted its ban on the use of education agents, an expected increase in the use of agents by US institutions is also likely to result in more aggressive student recruitment.”

The document also refers to Australia’s competitors in other English-speaking countries with the UK, Canada and New Zealand all releasing international education strategies in the past two years: “The national governments in those countries recognise the central role of international education in long-term economic prosperity and are strongly supporting the implementation of these strategies,” it states.

Meeting the competition

The writers also declare that a “strong, high-quality education and research system is fundamental to maintaining Australia’s international reputation as a leading provider of education services to international students".

“To be globally competitive, Australia will continue to work to create an education system that stands out as the best in the world, with some of our institutions among the very best. To support this goal, the Australian government will put in place education policies that encourage autonomy, competition and quality improvement and will make strategic investments in research and research infrastructure...”

Yet this is precisely what the government has not done and its failure to act in this way has led to despair within universities and across the public education sector. But Pyne and his writers continue to make optimistic claims about the future, setting out six main goals in the strategy but not providing any evidence of how they will be achieved.

Instead, the document presents a series of “strategic actions” that seem more like an election policy than a serious attempt to show how Australian institutions might attract more students from other countries. The first of these says:

“To support greater freedom to achieve excellence the Australian government will:
  • • Introduce reforms across Australia’s higher education system that will enhance institutional autonomy, increase diversity, encourage competition and provide choice for students;
  • • Extend tuition subsidies to sub-bachelor qualifications at public universities and all accredited undergraduate courses at private universities and non-university higher education institutions registered with the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency;
  • • Focus the VET system on ensuring that skills qualifications meet industry needs and streamlining governance and advisory arrangements.”

    Goals the government will never meet

    And so the text goes on with a succession of strategic actions for page after page, making claims of what the government will do that bear little relationship to any of the actions it has undertaken so far.

    Faced with a massive budget deficit and falling mineral prices, the government is unable to guarantee it will actually achieve any of what it says is necessary to improve Australia’s attractiveness to foreign students or give local students a better understanding of their place in the world.

    Writing in the Commentary section of this edition, two Australian academic critics of the strategy, Craig Whitsed and Wendy Green, say the strategy narrowly focuses on economic interests and fails to recognise the role of internationalisation of the curriculum in creating a more open, outward-looking country. They are among many who also believe that Pyne and his helpers have failed.

    Call for Pyne's resignation

    On 17 April, the National Tertiary Education Union called on Minister Pyne to resign following revelations he had agreed to grant A$4 million to establish a centre at the University of Western Australia headed by climate sceptic Danish professor Bjorn Lomborg.

    Lomborg writes regularly for the conservative Murdoch press in Australia and America. He was forced to relocate his “Copenhagen Consensus Center” to the US after a centre-left Danish government refused to continue its funding. Lomborg argues that climate change is not a top priority for governments and that its importance has been overstated.

    The union said the grant was made without any competitive process, yet each year thousands of Australian researchers apply for competitive research grants through the two main research councils and only one in five are successful.

    "These researchers will understandably be furious that the Education Minister has found a spare A$4 million to establish a research centre that has not been required to go through any competitive process,” said union president Jeannie Rea.

    "This money has been found despite the government's plans to cut university funding by billions of dollars, including funding for higher degree research students, cuts to the Cooperative Research Centre funding, and threats to cut A$150 million in funding for essential research infrastructure. Pyne should resign.”