Australian international education ‘worsens global inequities’

International enrolments bear no relationship whatsoever to provision gaps in students’ home countries, study finds

二月 18, 2024
Asian students
Source: iStock

Australia is exacerbating rather than reducing inequities in global education, with economic benefit the “driving force” behind its universities’ international offerings, a study suggests.

An analysis of overseas student numbers has found that enrolment patterns Down Under bear no relationship to the source countries’ needs. Factors such as gross domestic product (GDP), education funding and gross enrolment rates have little or no discernible influence on foreign participation in Australian degrees.

Proximity to Australia also makes little difference. “We might have expected that Australia would fill the gaps for countries…who have a low GDP or spend only a small proportion on education,” the authors write in a paper published on the EdArXiv Preprints platform. “If anything, the data show that students from countries with high GDPs within a region are particularly likely to come to study in Australian universities.

“Given the level of international student fees charged by Australian universities this is not surprising. Individual ability to pay is the most important predictor.”

The study found massive variations in enrolment rates in Australian universities, ranging from 403 per 100,000 people in Singapore to less than five per 100,000 in Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.

In the Pacific, enrolment rates in Australian universities ranged from 336 per 100,000 people in Nauru to 13 per 100,000 in Papua New Guinea. In south Asia, they ranged from 266 per 100,000 in Bhutan to less than four per 100,000 in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

The paper suggests that it makes no strategic sense for people from China, which has about double the GDP and tertiary enrolment rate of South-east Asia, to have “around twice the rate per population of students studying in Australian universities”, or for people from Nepal to have 24 times the rate of their neighbours in India.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest GDP and the lowest rate of enrolment in higher education, and the lowest proportion of its population accessing Australia’s university system,” the authors note. “Given the population projections and the future global importance of Africa to the world economy, would it not be in Australia’s interest to contribute to its development through higher education?”

Lead author Richard Heller, an emeritus professor of public health at the University of Newcastle, said he had been unsurprised by the results. But the “lack of either a positive or negative” relationship with foreign countries’ metrics – particularly the proportion of GDP spent on education – had stood out starkly.

“We were interested to document it because we don’t think it’s an ethical approach to international education,” he said.

Rejigging the study to apply less “crude” national measures, such as the population of 15- to 24-year-olds rather than overall population figures, had made “no difference” to the findings.

The paper suggests that Australian universities’ international education profits should be used to subsidise educational opportunities for foreigners “who cannot afford the current high fees”. Professor Heller said they should ideally be delivered offshore, given the environmental impact of international travel.

“I don’t think the solution is bringing different sorts of students here. I think the solution is to develop a really sophisticated online programme, because that has the other advantage of involving universities in developing countries and building their capacity at the same time.”



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Reader's comments (2)

Key issue: what is the purpose of [global ] HE? I've never seen a definition that its purpose is to reduce "inequities" however defined. Most govts justify spending on HE in terms of maintaining or enhancing the security, competitive advantage of their nations. Going to the taxpayers and telling them that we want to use your taxes to subsidise the HE system of other countries is a recipe for electoral suicide and only deepen distrust in a sector that is already struggling with public support. Online programmes might be fine for some disciplines, however not for subjects that have a heavy laboratory component or where interpersonal interaction is a key component. No virtual laboratories are not a credible answer.
Marketized HE sells degrees to people who can pay high fees and seeks to maximise revenues. Shock news.