Australian international recruitment ‘can rebound’, Tudge says

Education minister cites buoyant student experience ratings as evidence of the country’s ‘fundamentals’

August 5, 2021
Australian shadow education minister Alan Tudge
Australian education minister Alan Tudge

Australia’s education minister says international students could flock back to the country sooner rather than later, citing upbeat results from research conducted at the height of Melbourne’s pandemic lockdown.

Alan Tudge says a survey of about 87,000 international students undertaken last August and September shows that “the fundamentals are still very strong” for Australian education exports.

“We are still well positioned to…bring international students back and have our commencement numbers start to accelerate again quite rapidly,” Mr Tudge told Times Higher Education’s THE Live ANZ event.

New figures suggest Covid did not spoil things for most overseas undergraduates who spent the first year of the pandemic in Australia. Their living experience attracted a record 91 per cent positive rating, according to the latest International Student Experience Survey.

Australia’s foreign enrolments have proved unexpectedly resilient to date, with overall international student numbers down about 11 per cent on their 2019 peak. But the conference heard that numbers of commencing overseas students had fallen “precipitously” – by 21 per cent compared to last year, and 35 per cent compared with the year before.

“It’s the new students who are thinking: ‘What am I doing with my life? Where am I going to go? Where can I get in?’” said Catriona Jackson, chief executive of representative body Universities Australia. “They’re the numbers that really matter to us, and that’s the reason that what was a A$40 billion [£21 billion] export industry – fourth largest in the country – has now become a A$31 billion industry. It’s the reason that universities have very serious revenue issues.”

Mr Tudge agreed that new student numbers were a concern. “Obviously, when the commencement figures are down this year that has a flow-on effect into next year, the year after and potentially the year after that.”

But the survey demonstrated the continuing appeal of Australia’s lifestyle, its multicultural character and the quality of its institutions. “If we look at things we can do to really welcome students back – at the government level, but equally at institution or local government level – then we can have confidence in the medium term,” he said.

The survey found that living arrangements in Australia had attracted a record 91 per cent positive rating, despite reports of foreign students threatened with homelessness during the pandemic. Ninety-one per cent said they were able to improve their English skills, while 90 per cent gave off-campus safety the thumbs up.

Mr Tudge said safety was a “very important attribute”, given the reputational damage incurred a decade ago when Indian students suffered attacks in Melbourne streets.

Overseas students’ positive rating of their overall educational experience fell 12 percentage points to 63 per cent, with less than half reporting that they felt adequately engaged as learners. Mr Tudge said this was “understandable” in a pandemic, but Australia needed to do better.

He said the 10-year international student strategy, which he received in draft form about a fortnight ago, was still being worked on by the Council for International Education. The government’s response would need to be considered by federal cabinet, which Mr Tudge hoped would happen this year.  

“I know the sector is looking for whatever certainty and hope they can see on the horizon,” he said. “I’m trying to [provide] that as much as possible.”

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