Australian funding model ‘risks backfiring on national interest’

Missteps with international students ‘a bigger threat to the national interest’ than to university budgets, says commentator

December 20, 2019
International students
Source: iStock

While Australian universities depend on good foreign relations at the governmental level to help guarantee healthy flows of international students, the reverse is also the case.

High-profile journalist and political commentator George Megalogenis said that by increasingly forcing universities to fund their own operations – typically, by boosting their international enrolments – the government has obliged them to host tens of thousands of people from the countries “that are going to determine our fate in an Asian century”.

Events that alienate these students could have dire consequences for university budgets. But the risks were arguably greater for the country as a whole, Mr Megalogenis said.

“This is not a campus issue so much as it’s a political and societal issue,” he told Times Higher Education.

Mr Megalogenis cited the 2010 Melbourne murder of Indian student Nitin Garg as the sort of incident that could damage the broader national interest more seriously than universities’ narrow pecuniary interests.

Such events’ influence on the victims’ fellow students could have the opposite effect of last century’s Colombo Plan, when Australia educated a generation of future Asian leaders who turned out sympathetic to Australia’s interests.

The risk now was that Australian diplomats could find themselves negotiating with a new generation of graduates who resented their former hosts. “Why would they listen to us?” he asked. “In the national security space, we’re worrying about this already.”

Another concern was that Australia, like other Western nations, was increasingly dependent on the skills of migrants – including international students – as its domestic population aged.

He said that similar motivations offered arguably the biggest threat to enrolments from Australia’s top source country for international students. “China’s ageing equation is diabolical,” he said.

“Their one-child policy has mucked up their breeding generation, for want of a better term. Their incentives in the next few years are to retain as many young people as possible – not send them out.”

Mr Megalogenis said that unlike previous source nations of Australian migrants, China was “the first mother country that feels it has a say” in its citizens’ post-migration experiences.

“Most migrants in the 20th century were literally breaking off from the mother country,” he said. “My parents’ generation didn’t have the Greek colonels looking over their shoulders.

“This is a different relationship. The risk is not so much whether we can draw the line with the mother country. The risk is what happens when the mother country decides it’s losing too many of its kids.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Funding model could ‘harm national interest’

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