Internationalisation benefits stressed as borders stay closed

As Australia pivots to local concerns, university leaders flag importance of international students beyond just their fees 

September 30, 2020
Source: UQ News
Deborah Terry

Australian sector leaders have emphasised the need to maintain long-term ties with overseas students, even as borders remained closed and as the government pivots efforts to domestic enrolments and local economies.

The comments were in response to an announcement by education minister Dan Tehan, who said at the Australian Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit that millions of dollars would be poured in to increasing university spaces for local students, especially for industry-linked disciplines.

Australian universities, like those in other major receiving nations such as the US and UK, have suffered financially because of the sudden drop in fee-paying international students. These losses have resulted in cuts in staffing, programmes and research.

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight network of top research universities, told the summit that the sector knew, even before the Covid pandemic, that using international student revenue to cross-subsidise research was an “unsustainable” and “distorted” funding model.

This practice was outlined in a University of Sydney report in August that linked the rampant recruitment of mostly Chinese students with the hiring of highly paid researchers at Australian universities. 

However, Ms Thomson stressed that internationalisation was about more than just fees, and that universities needed to make an effort to keep ties intact.

“Research must be global. We may have physical borders closed, but we have to keep borders open via online teaching and research,” she said. “We cannot be an isolated country.”

Australia’s strict border controls have kept total Covid deaths to under 1,000, but they have also kept out international students who may or may not continue their studies in 2021.

More than 86,000 student visa holders enrolled in Australian higher education, or 23 per cent of all foreign higher education students, were not physically in the country as of late June, according to government figures. Entry restrictions have not eased much since that time, and few foreign students have been able to re-enter the country, except under some very limited pilot schemes.

Among all Chinese students – including at vocational, language and other schools – 40 per cent were not in Australia. This is the highest percentage among major sending nations. South Korea comes in at a distant second, with 20 per cent of its students not back in Australia.

Duncan Maskell, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, said that a “purely financial argument misses a main point about the diversity of our campuses”.

Internationalisation – which he said should not be mixed up with the more financially focused term of “globalisation” – brings the “best brains in the world” to Australia.

“Too often, the language of markets is used in higher education. International students are not a ‘market’, they are people, and often brilliant and courageous ones,” he said. “Foreign students become global bridge-builders and friends of Australia.”

In the immediate term, it may make practical sense to focus on growing domestic enrolments. But in the long term, Australian universities still had a role to play globally. “Rising tensions makes international collaborations by Australian universities uniquely important,” Professor Maskell said.

Deborah Terry, vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland and chair of Universities Australia, said that “international education is one of Australia’s great success stories”.

For now, she saw signs that a “good number” of international students enrolled at her institution were taking courses remotely. “They’re sticking with us,” she said.

Mr Tehan said, despite the fact that “the absence of international students is keenly felt”, that market was set to rebound quickly as borders reopened. “The Asia-Pacific economy looks set to weather the impact of Covid-19 better than most,” he said.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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