May 12, 2021

Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030: IRU response

International education and international research linkages are essential elements of a world standard university system for Australia.  The Australian Government’s 2016 National Strategy for International Education 2025 was a major recognition of this and the Coalition Government’s commitment to a whole of Government approach to supporting international education and research.

Halfway through the target period to 2025 the Government has rightly seen that it needs to rework its strategy to respond effectively to several significant changes since 2016.  These include:

  • continued development of digital based education that both strengthens the base for in person on campus education and greatly widens the notional set of people able to enrol online to a degree program offered from education providers around the world;
  • the impact of Covid-19 on the capacity for people to move across national boundaries and, at times, within countries and cities, that will remain a factor for several years if not longer;
  • greater debate within Australia about the number of temporary migrants that should be permitted, to ensure an effective socially cohesive society in which students are welcome not rejected; and
  • Government argument that publicly established universities ought to give stronger priority to Australian students and their needs.

The consultation paper proposes the basis for a new decade long Strategy.  The paper is high level to target the leading questions about why Australia should support international education and research and what the priority outcomes needed are before we can move to more action focussed discussions.

The discussion paper highlights several important issues that need resolution before the Strategy can develop further, whether it discusses these directly or equally importantly ignores them. Government commitments to their resolution are central to a viable meaningful strategy.

  1. The Strategy needs a clear base in a proposed post Covid-19 shape for international education and research. Government commitment to support workable entry protocols long term and the future scope for onshore education is crucial.
  2. The whole of Government approach central to the 2016 Strategy requires effective recognition of the link between international education and migration. The discussion paper essentially ignores the viable, positive outcome for Australia’s skilled workforce, that 16% of such students since early 2000s chose to become Australian residents through established migration programs.
  3. As with the 2016 Strategy support for international research is badly presented through being dispersed throughout the document. There needs to be a clear research specific section in the Strategy to ensure the Australian Government gets behind the reality that research is international.
  4. The Government’s commitment to a whole of Government approach to international education and research is badly stretched by its response to concerns about foreign interference in universities, the alignment of world linkages to the Government’s ever changing foreign relations policies, and concerns that potential students from many countries that would be part of a more diverse international student body are not acceptable visa recipients.

These issues are the focus for considerable effort across universities, Government security and foreign affairs agencies and Government members.  The strategy cannot ignore these questions.

Beyond these major issues to be resolved the strategy discussion paper raises two important areas.

  • It seeks to influence the nature of future teaching for international students. Education delivery is a matter that affects all students. All students, Australian or foreign, deserve a high quality education using the best techniques and resources.  To explore the changes’ impact for international students requires the Strategy to engage with how these questions best interact with how education for all students is developed into the future.
  • How to engage with the Australian community to improve public understanding of what international education means with an active effort to reduce hostility.