Australia re-asserts itself as a top study destination

When Australia’s borders were opened in November 2021 after being closed for over two years, international students started to come back, slowly at first but, if industry sources are correct, that trickle could become an avalanche by 2023.

A report titled Emerging Futures by global education specialist IDP, based on research conducted in August this year, confirms that international students are returning to Australia, with the country bouncing back to become the world’s second most popular higher education study destination.

In a presentation to the Australian International Education Conference ‘Beyond Borders’ conference in the Gold Coast last week (18-21 October), IDP Connect Client Director Andrew Wharton said: “We all felt the absence in our communities when border closures restricted the travel of international students to our shores, and it is encouraging to see the perceptions of Australia improve now our borders are open.

“As we welcome students back, [we need] to listen to what students want, which is clear career pathways and job opportunities during their studies, and to make sure their expectations are met when they arrive.”

Australian-listed IDP is a leading global education services company, operating in more than 50 countries.

Increased popularity

The survey, which collates the views of more than 11,000 prospective students, applicants and current students, demonstrated that Australia’s popularity as a first-choice study destination has climbed five percentage points since March 2022.

Canada remains the top destination, with 27% of respondents selecting this as their first choice.

Australia is particularly popular among students from Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Vietnam, but trails other destinations when it comes to students from China and India, the two largest markets. Sixty-two percent of the respondents in the IDP survey said that Australia was their first choice because it was a safe country for international students.

When the pandemic hit Australia in early 2020, and the country became one of the first to close its international borders, the export earnings from international students was about AU$40 billion (US$25 billion) and higher education was among the top three export earners, along with minerals and tourism.

International students, particularly from Asia, were also widely employed as part-timers in the tourism, hospitality and retail sectors, which are now facing a serious labour shortage.

New challenges

IDP predicts that 2023 could be a bumper year for international student recruitment to Australia. But Simon Emmett, CEO of IDP Connect, warns of new challenges.

“With open borders and attractive post-study work policies, destinations are going head-to-head to attract international students. However, at the same time, many countries are facing socio-economic instability, and students are navigating new emerging challenges,” Emmett said.

“For the first time, we can see clear differences in the prospective student mindset compared to currently enrolled students.”

Emmett says that according to the research, students are incredibly determined and ambitious, but their onshore experience can be tough.

“Notably, the findings highlight the pressures students face when juggling studies and part-time work, as well as feelings of isolation,” he notes.

“International education as a country destination has become more competitive than it has ever been [and] the need to listen to our students is even more critical,” Emmett said in a welcoming address to the Australian International Education Conference.

Though the data paints a positive picture for the future of Australia’s international education industry, a panel discussion at the conference looked at the numerous challenges facing the international education sector.

Many in the panel argued that just promoting courses is not enough and a host of other issues were at play in the post-pandemic era as universities begin to recover from the devastating effects the pandemic had on the sector.

Advancing competitiveness

Karen Sandercock, first assistant secretary in the international division of the Australian Department of Education, argued that Australia must look at what is needed to advance its competitiveness, and there is a lot that needs to be done.

“Diversifying what we offer and how we offer it is important and the pandemic encouraged a lot of innovations in course delivery,” noted Sandercock, pointing out that the government made a lot of investments to make it possible for the higher education sector to deliver services internationally.

“We worked on rapidly innovating services during COVID,” she noted. “But that is not giving us an advantage because our competitors are making policy changes to make international education more attractive to students.” Thus, she argued, Australia needs to think creatively and differently about how to attract students to its shores.

“Diversity means different things to different people, [and] it should not be about our source market,” warned fellow panelist Janelle Chapman, president of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA).

“It is important to have a diversification strategy [because] the lesson of COVID is that many of us went back to very low numbers of international students … that raised questions for us about what can we do [to achieve] a diverse range of students, locations and programmes.”

Student expectations

The IDP survey also compared the experience of newly enrolled students with prospective student expectations. It found that prospective students were mainly concerned about balancing part-time work and study, not having enough money and adapting to a new culture and way of learning.

Another panelist, Phil Honeywood, CEO of IEAA, recalled that when the Council for International Education was established, it included a students’ representative among its 11 councillors who made the point that university counsellors of Anglo-Saxon origin were unable to handle many of the students’ mental health concerns.

According to Honeywood, addressing this issue entailed sourcing a variety of skilled migrants from the various countries from which the international student population was drawn and getting their qualifications recognised in Australia so they could provide appropriate counselling services to the full range of students.

“Diversity is an important goal and aspiration,” argued Honeywood. “[It needs to be] connected, creative and caring [towards students].”