Australian universities ‘should not apologise’ for foreign recruitment

‘Why is being incredibly successful a problem?’ asks Universities Australia chair Margaret Gardner

February 27, 2019

Australia’s universities have launched a forthright defence of their financial reliance on international students, saying that they should not have to apologise for being “one of the most successful sectors in the world”.

Universities Australia chair Margaret Gardner said that the country’s education exports should be cause for celebration, not despair. “Why is being incredibly successful a problem?” the Monash University vice-chancellor asked in a speech to the National Press Club.

“Go and talk to any other export industry and put it to them…a tiny little country, about to move from third in the world to second. We should be wringing our hands and tearing our hair out? No. We should be celebrating that success.

“Around the world, we have thousands and thousands of alumni. People who are ministers; people who change the world around them. They’re ours. They care about us in a way people care when they’ve spent a long time getting an education. I don’t think we should be apologetic about being incredibly successful.”

The Press Club address is a traditional fixture of UA’s higher education conference, currently under way in Canberra. Professor Gardner had been quizzed about “growing concerns” over universities’ financial exposure to students from overseas – particularly the key market of China.

While Chinese students’ tuition fees help to pay for university research and infrastructure, commentators worry that political tensions – both domestic and offshore – could jeopardise the flow of international students. A survey commissioned by UNSW Sydney has found that 54 per cent of Australians believe that the federal government should limit the intake of foreign students.

Meanwhile, news has emerged of China’s apparent decision to reject shipments of Australian coal – the country’s second biggest export – in the northern port of Dalian. Professor Gardner was asked about the fear that Chinese enrolments in Australia could be curtailed in a similar fashion.

“It would have a significant impact,” she conceded. But Australian universities have “proven to be incredibly resilient and agile” in managing international education, she added. “It would cause pain, but it would be something we would have to deal with – just as we have to deal with government [funding] cuts. I am completely confident that…vice-chancellors would know what to do.”

Professor Gardner also released survey results suggesting that academics were the people most trusted to populate public debates with evidence and hard facts.

More than half of Australians rate university researchers, scientists and experts as trusted sources of information, according to an online poll of 1,500 people, with 37 per cent deeming academics to be the most trustworthy sources.

This compared with 8 per cent for medical professionals, 5 per cent for business leaders, 4 per cent for journalists and 2 per cent for environmental organisations, activist groups, unions, religious bodies, politicians and social media.

Professor Gardner described university researchers as a “public brains trust”.

“Their expertise helps us delve more comprehensively into the who, what, when, where, why and, indeed, the how of events in our world,” she said.

“By the time you’re on your second cup of coffee – which, incidentally, university research says is probably good for you – chances are you’ve already heard from a least half a dozen university experts…through online feeds, newspapers, radio and TV.”

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