Australia needs an international education champion, too

Appointing Sir Steve Smith to spearhead the UK’s strategy could see Australia lose ground, warns Tim Dunne

七月 26, 2020
Australia champion
Source: iStock

So many problems, so few solutions. We know that Covid-19 has been a catastrophe for the university sector in Australia. Job losses are predicted to be in excess of 20,000 overall, revenue is likely to be down by A$16 billion (£9 billion) between now and 2023, and the elite Group of Eight are peering over the edge of a A$2 billion fiscal cliff.

As if that wasn’t enough, the sources of disruption keep coming. Even when the pandemic ceases to be the immediate cause of the catastrophe, Australian universities are not expecting international enrolments to return to their pre-coronavirus levels. If the geopolitics of the Australia-China relationship deteriorate any further, there might not be many Chinese students disembarking at Australian airports once international flights resume.

If we add into the mix the likely impact of the Australian government’s proposed cut of around 15 per cent in the income received per domestic student then we have a bleak outlook for the sector.

What is to be done? Many of the most obvious solutions remain out of reach, either because they require additional public funding (which is not going to happen) or because their resolution is beyond our control (as it is with US-China relations).

Yet there are two ways in which internationalisation can mitigate the disruptive effects of the current crisis – and better still, neither requires new money. The first is to take confidence from the history and tradition of independent scholarly learning: knowledge knows no country and universities have not, historically, been subservient to sovereigns.

Watching how virologists around the world have responded to Covid-19 is a reminder that universities are better at global engagement than other institutions – including sovereign states. As the University of Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, has argued, they are the only global institutions to emerge from the pandemic with any credit.

Universities have, in Richardson’s words, been “in the trenches” working to deliver a vaccine according to a timeline that has never been attempted before. And they are not going it alone; instead, they are doing this through their transnational networks of researchers, technicians, philanthropists and industry partners.

Paul Young, the lead scientist in the University of Queensland vaccine team, exemplified the collaborative character of the global challenge. Rather than thinking about it as a “race” to win market share, he said that “the prize is a viable vaccine, not who gets there first”.

Finding strength in the history and tradition of education as an international practice is important. There are also practical ways in which internationalisation can be enhanced. One such measure would be to follow the lead taken by the UK government and appoint a “champion” for international education.

As was recently reported in Times Higher Education, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, Sir Steve Smith, will be the UK’s first international education champion. He will lead delegations overseas, advise on how to develop effective partnerships, complement the work of relevant ministers and be a focal point for the rest of the sector.

The role was identified in the release of a new strategic plan for international education published in 2019. The strategy was no doubt driven by the need for all economic sectors to rebuild their base after Brexit. At the same time, the plan was timely with respect to how the UK government is looking to support the sector. Why wouldn’t it? International education overall is worth about £20 billion a year to the UK economy – and the strategy aims to increase it to £35 billion by 2030, with the number of students rising from 485,000 to 600,000.

When governments think about markets they quickly shift from thinking about the size of the global market (absolute gains) to their particular market share (relative gains). A goal of 4 per cent growth per annum looks incredibly ambitious given the contraction caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet a 10-year timeline gives the sector an opportunity to rebuild; the UK might well succeed in attracting significant numbers of students who might otherwise have decided to study somewhere else – such as Australia.

It would be Pollyannaish in the extreme to think that a lone “champion” can give Australian universities an advantage in the global marketplace. Universities also need stable and favourable regulatory environments (the UK is also making its visa rules more attractive to students), greater support from industry and the reissuing of the social licence that universities once held to create knowledge independently from ideology and dogma.

There is much, however, to be gained from appointing someone to spearhead the strategy. The UK government found a champion in an accomplished vice-chancellor who was about to retire and was prepared to do the role on a pro bono basis. There are many leaders of higher education in Australia with similar credentials and an equal desire to see the sector prosper.

So let’s follow the UK’s lead. After all, “champion” even sounds Australian!

Tim Dunne is pro vice-chancellor at the University of Queensland.



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