Australian international education ‘a cheap fix’

Economical changes and positive mindset could alleviate the industry’s woes, says federal MP

May 4, 2020
international students foreign students
Source: iStock

Australia’s government could inexpensively breathe life back into its fourth-biggest export industry, according to opposition MP and former international education bureaucrat Julian Hill.

Mr Hill said international education could be revived for a fraction of the money Canberra had spent to bail out aviation and tourism. “The effort involved here is far less for much greater return,” he told Times Higher Education.

“In purely mercenary economic terms, they can save thousands more jobs with some simple policy-led actions that don’t cost a fortune.”

International education earned Australia A$40.4 billion (£20.8 billion) in 2019, making it the country’s fourth-biggest export after iron ore, coal and gas. The industry supports “upward of 250,000 jobs”, according to federal education minister Dan Tehan, yet it is bedevilled by policy uncertainty. The Home Affairs Department has stopped processing many applications for student visas because of coronavirus-related logistical difficulties, it is not granting automatic visa extensions to foreign students whose studies have been disrupted by the pandemic and it refuses to clarify whether students forced to study online will qualify for post-graduation work rights.

Mr Hill said international education was the only top-10 export that had attracted “no serious help or policy attention” from the government. “There’s been no collegiate effort to get the relevant ministries, agencies, providers and students around the table to nut out solutions to these problems.”

Mr Hill spent three years as executive director of international education in the Victorian state government before his election to federal parliament, where he now co-chairs the Parliamentary Friends of International Education support group. He said the visa processing problems the government faced were real, but the answer was to “sit down with a solution mindset and find a way through”.

“I was a senior bureaucrat,” he said. “I have dealt with crises before. The first thing you do is get everyone around the table and look at how to solve the problems.”

The federal government has alienated international students by excluding them from financial support packages to combat the pandemic’s effects, while prime minister Scott Morrison said foreign students unable to support themselves should simply go home. But THE understands that Mr Tehan and population minister Alan Tudge have been working behind the scenes to support the industry.

Reforms to boost visa flexibility may emerge within days, while New South Wales – the only state that has not yet unveiled a hardship fund for international students – is understood to be addressing the issue this week. “The government will consider what additional support may be required to complement assistance already being provided by universities in NSW and the commonwealth,” said a spokesman for state treasurer Dominic Perrottet.

Mr Hill said the industry’s problems could be alleviated by clarifying post-study work rights, extending visas and introducing flexible enrolment conditions.

He said a senior minister – ideally Mr Tehan, who had endeavoured to be “positive and sensitive” – should be appointed to “coordinate the recovery” at the federal level.

Overseas students forced home during the crisis should be assured that they could continue their studies online and return next year “without penalty for breaching visa or enrolment conditions”. Those experiencing hardship in Australia should be allowed to convert to part-time study temporarily, “to reduce financial stress and free up tuition fees for living expenses”, he added.

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Reader's comments (2)

Post covid will be a different world and Australia would not need international students coming to their campuses physically in Australia and more. Universities have seen the future of online education delivery and export and will not build up further physical capacity both in terms of real estate and human resources. Post covid, everything will change, most countries will mostly close their borders to further immigration and international students, trump has already initiated this and online education delivery at the international student’s home in their home countries will become the norm. That’s where the future of Australian online education exports is. International students will no longer be required to come to Australia and learn from being physically present at a campus and universities will continue to deliver quality education online and universities will save an immense amount of money that can be used to attract the brightest 1 per cent and setup world class laboratories in every discipline. Australia is not worried about whether students come to Australia or not, we have numerous other industries to rely on and I would advise all international students in Australia just as the prime minister advice , to go back home immediately
This is at the heart of the problem. Education should not be considered an export. The whole industry has been exposed and its now time for universities to have a rethink about what they are here for. Time for the fly-by-night recruitment agents, international pathway providers, international office staff and Pro-VC (Internationals) to duck out.