International HE regulation: Australia is showing the way

Spending a week at the recent Australian International Education Conference (AIEC) hosted by IDP Education Ltd in Australia’s ‘city of churches’, Adelaide, has in many ways been somewhat of an epiphany. In my 20-plus years of working in higher education I have never attended AIEC and, in truth, after attending this conference I can safely say that I have been missing a trick.

As a colleague commented at the conference, Australians don’t just talk about it, they get on and do something about it. This was true during the pandemic: with borders closed, the Study Australia website and collateral went through a total rebrand and, while many working in Australian institutions were casualties of the pandemic, the Australian sector is now leaner and more efficient, ready to take on new challenges post-pandemic.

In addition, interactions between the federal government, state governments, tertiary education institutions and the private sector seem far more collaborative and squarely aimed at achieving the best outcomes for all parties. The ‘us and them’ mentality, so in evidence in the United Kingdom, was nowhere to be seen.

All this is in stark contrast to the UK which, during the pandemic, when in truth they were in a much stronger position with relatively open borders and time on their hands to really look at differentiating the UK’s value proposition, witnessed inaction and a deafening silence from sector bodies across the board.

Not only that, but the hostility between government, sector bodies/universities and the private sector is palpable. This has not only led to inaction but is damaging what should be everyone’s focus, namely, delivering the best experience and outcomes for international students.

This has been in addition to a failure by the UK to effectively address the regulation of international education agents placing increasing numbers of students in UK tertiary education institutions.

We are sorry to say that the sector as regulator does not pass muster, as there are strong vested interests at play and ‘the UK Agent Quality Framework’ jointly led by the British Council, the British Universities' International Liaison Association, the UK Council for International Student Affairs and Universities UK International has to date been quite frankly a sticking plaster on what is an open wound, with the proliferation of sub-agents and dubious agent practices being widespread and showing no sign of abating.

This ‘voluntary code’ is in stark contrast to the recent announcement of an investment by the Australian government of AU$38.1 million (US$24 million) to regulate international education agents.

From sustainable growth to a duty of care

That brings me to my key takeaways from AIEC: ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘a duty of care’ to international students. This was in evidence in every session and every conversation throughout the conference, sometimes not explicit, but functioning as the heartbeat of the conference.

These two mantras are not just ‘sound bites’ but calls to action and, while there is always more to do and improvements to be made, Australia and all those invested in international higher education there are not just talking about them, they are acting upon them.

The government is acting in no uncertain terms, with a few recent policy changes directed at international education in Australia: imposing legislation increasing the proof of financial means before granting international students visas in response to the cost-of-living crisis; clamping down on ghost colleges that act as means to fraudulently obtain student visas; banning transfers for students who have studied for less than six months; and investing around AU$40 million in regulating and clamping down on unscrupulous education agents.

Different environments

What is interesting about all of this is that it is not meeting resistance from the sector. If anything, the sector is embracing the changes and looking at its own policies and practices and how it will work within the new legislation. This again is the opposite of what is happening in the UK, with the government seemingly set against universities and their ‘rip-off degrees’.

Nothing is a better illustration of this than the Net Migration Briefing in which the UK Home Office proposes: increasing the minimum salaries for companies employing skilled international workers; making it more difficult to bring spouses and family members to the UK; reducing the period of post-study work to six months; banning dependants of postgraduate taught students; and removing students if they fail to complete their course in the UK.

Fortunately, to date, only one of these measures has been implemented and from January 2024 postgraduate taught students will be ineligible to bring family members to the UK.

However, far from the sector working with government and lobbying effectively against some of these draconian measures, some higher education institutions are looking to circumvent the ban on dependants by bringing forward January start dates to November.

This short-term action by a small number of universities could, in fact, provide the very impetus the Home Office needs to implement the Net Migration Briefing in full, to the detriment of the entire UK higher education sector.

The sad fact is that as far back as 2019 the UK sector could have acted to fundamentally rebrand UK higher education and pivot from post-study work to supporting international students’ transition to successful careers back home.

It had a long enough runway to drive real change from within and effectively lobby the government that they were making significant efforts collectively for international education to be immigration neutral, with evidence that the majority of international students return to their home countries to successful careers and build the UK’s soft power base overseas.

The point of no return?

While this is all still within UK higher education’s gift, we are approaching the point of no return, and it is in fact far more likely that government policy, by reducing post-study work, will force universities’ hand and leave them no choice but to support students returning home as the time they can spend in the UK will be severely reduced.

Australia, seeing the challenges ahead for UK international education, will no doubt seize the opportunity to increase the quality of their international student cohort at the UK’s expense and, while a focus on supporting students returning home is not a ‘burning platform’ in the same way as it is in the UK, it was widely felt at the conference among all stakeholders that it was the right thing to do.

Which brings us back to the mantras ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘a duty of care’, both of which point to supporting international students into successful careers wherever they may be in the world.

So can a leopard change its spots? In the case of Australia, I firmly believe it can, but when it comes to the UK, while there is hope, I am not so sure.

Louise Nicol is founder of alsocan and Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.