Moving international education online ‘risky’

As Australian minister calls for an online shift to reach 10 million foreigners, insiders warn such offering wouldn’t meet students’ needs

June 3, 2021
Confused student listens to online lecture
Source: iStock

Australian universities should not assume that their lucrative international education industry can be replicated online, a Canberra forum has heard.

Education minister Alan Tudge told the Universities Australia conference that the nation should aim to have 10 million foreign students within a decade. They would be attracted to a “very different model” of international education – “some pure online; some hybrid models; some on-campus models abroad at different price points for different customer segments”, he argued.

“That’s an aspiration that we should be looking towards,” Mr Tudge said. “The government wants to support you as you think through these challenges…so you can have real impact in terms of what you provide, but also to create new revenue streams.”

Monash University vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner predicted “renewed experimentation and perhaps expansion” of Australia’s international education offerings. “We know that digital transformation accelerated with border closures,” she said. “Opportunities for new and more blended experiences have increased.

“[But they] haven’t replaced on-campus education. Our international education success to date has been built on the quality of on-campus education. If we were…to shift to a much larger online presence, what would Australia’s value proposition be?”

Education services company IDP said its surveys of thousands of would-be international students had revealed an overwhelming preference for face-to-face delivery. “They would be open to a hybrid style of model, but only if it incorporated a significant portion of on-campus, in-country action,” said CEO Andrew Barkla.

“I’m talking 90 per cent of the international student marketplace. These aren’t just students coming to Australia; they’re going to Canada, the UK, the US. They’re looking for that broader experience – to integrate into a new society, to make new friends. They’re looking ultimately, as we all know, to connect to a global employment opportunity.”

Mr Barkla said universities needed to be “very careful” about revisiting their education model “without putting the customers, the students, at the very centre of that question. We need to come back to what the students want.

“You can’t simply say, ‘We’re going online.’ It doesn’t make sense. No business would do that without talking to their customers.”

Singapore’s high commissioner to Australia, Kwok Fook Seng, said students travelled abroad at a “formative age” for the “immersive experience” and to interact with academics and fellow students. “We’ve got to be careful with what we’re trying to achieve,” said Mr Kwok, who has first-hand experience of international education as a graduate of Perth’s Murdoch University.

Mr Barkla said IDP had seen a “strong downward trend” in applications to study in Australia, particularly from China, India, Indonesia and Nepal.

“When the government spoke [about] borders not opening up until the middle of next year, there was a significant drop-off across the network in Australia as a preference. And for the first time, we saw many students seeking an alternative study location.”

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