An international education strategy with no vision

The long anticipated Australian National Strategy for International Education 2025 was released to the public on 30 April 2016. This document represents the culmination of a year-long process of consultation with stakeholders, which began with the release of a draft strategy for public comment.

The then minister for education Christopher Pyne stated in the draft: “It is only through a broad national approach that we will be able to realise the full potential of international education as a core element of Australia’s economy and society.” Unfortunately, the final strategy falls far short of this goal.

“The intent of the strategy is to ensure that Australia remains a leader in the provision of international services to overseas students,” writes Richard Colbeck, minister for tourism and international education, in the foreword to the strategy. Education is now firmly established as a service industry and this has implications for the sector beyond those associated with market forces.

This strategy, the minister writes, signals a “commitment to… advance international education by identifying new products, new opportunities for expansion, and building on our current presence in the existing markets”.

This holy trinity, while retaining the values of the draft, replaces the longstanding focus on economic prosperity, social advancement and international standing featured in the 2013 Chaney Report, Australia – Educating Globally and the 2015 Draft National Strategy for International Education.

Australia has received considerable criticism for its overt emphasis on monetising international education and the neo-liberal values and ideology that underpin its attitudes to international education. The new strategy does little to address such concerns.

The strategy has three pillars: strengthening the fundamentals, transformative partnerships and competing globally. To operationalise these pillars, the Australian government will provide A$12 million (US$8.8 million) over four years (should it return to power following the 2 July elections). How this funding will be allocated and for what purpose is unclear.

On 2 May, Stephen Matchett, in his Campus Morning Mail observed that the strategy contains “no specific objectives or accountabilities, commitments or costings, no dates and details on who will do what by when and how achievements will be assessed”.

Yet, one thing seems clear: with the closure of the Office for Learning and Teaching – the major source of funding for teaching innovation in Australian higher education – innovation and continuous improvement in teaching and learning for international education is not a priority.

What we find particularly disappointing, when comparing the draft strategy with the final version, is the shift in language from education to services. This shift, we contend, clearly demonstrates a lack of vision for the potential of an internationalised curriculum and its transformative potential for all students, as we have written about in recent publications.

From draft to final strategy

The Draft National Strategy for International Education takes “a broad view of what constitutes international education for Australia. It includes international students studying in Australia and those studying for an Australian qualification overseas, as well as the experiences of Australian students who study abroad…

"It also encompasses a large range of engagement activities in all areas of education, including promoting international skills exchange, connecting learners through new technologies, internationalising curriculum and engaging with the world through alumni.”

This is clearly not the position in the national strategy, once it was released. The final version positions Australian international education as focused on: “new products”, “capitalising on new opportunities”, and expanding “existing markets”.

Realising the transformative potential of an internationalised educational experience for all students, staff and institutions is not part of the vision.

Several commentators have highlighted gaps in Australia’s first National Strategy for International Education, including Brendan O’Malley in University World News. From our perspective, two issues warrant further comment: the shift in ‘vision’, and – in spite of the stated commitment to ‘the fundamentals’ – the lack of attention to curriculum and learning outcomes.

What is the vision?

Following the release of the Draft National Strategy for International Education in 2015, the Australian government invited comments from stakeholders. The draft strategy was prefaced with the vision statement: “Australian international education is a core element of Australia’s economic prosperity, social advancement and international standing”.

Disappointingly, the draft vision statement was not significantly different from previous reports commissioned by successive Australian governments (such as the Australia – Educating Globally report). It also largely ignored the broader benefits of an international education for students and addressed the need for an approach to curriculum internationalisation as an essential component in the development of Australian international education.

This, we argued, along with others, was too narrow: the draft’s vision statement failed to offer an aspirational, future-orientated, transformative imagining of the potential of internationalised education.

In response to feedback on the draft strategy, Phil Honeywood, chief executive officer of the International Education Association of Australia and acting chair of the Coordinating Council for International Education, wrote in his blog: “One of the first items of business for the new coordinating council… has been to endorse a vision statement that will effectively reflect our nation's aspirations” for international education.

At the Australian International Education Conference (2015), Honeywood proposed the following revised vision statement for the final strategy: “Australian international education is a transformative force in realising the potential of learners, communities and economies.”

As Honeywood emphasised, this revised statement would signal to the international community a maturing or coming of age in Australia’s engagement with international education and that international education represented more than a mechanism for revenue creation and an expression of market driven values and aspirations. This now seems less likely in our view.

No focus on curriculum or learning outcomes

Goal two of the final strategy is “delivering the best possible student experience”. It encompasses three actions: supporting students, informing student choice and preparing students for global engagement. However, there is a disappointing lack of emphasis on the learning experience and learning outcomes.

Absent in the strategy is a focus on curriculum. The word curriculum appeared 13 times in the draft strategy document – this has been whittled down to three mentions in the new strategy.

Internationalisation of the curriculum as a concept has completely vanished and learning is collocated with: ‘distant’, ‘onshore’, ‘in-market and online’; while there are lists outlining what Australia will ‘deliver’, ‘build’, ‘encourage’ and ‘provide’.

The absence of a focus on curriculum development and support for the teaching and learning arrangements with the potential to benefit all students, across each sector, is hardly surprising in an international strategy that lacks vision.

Craig Whitsed is a senior lecturer at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Wendy Green is a senior lecturer in learning and teaching at the University of Tasmania.