In Douglas Adams’ sci-fi romp The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a planet called Magrathea develops a highly specialised export industry: manufacturing custom-designed worlds for the super-rich.
Business is so good that it bankrupts the entire galaxy. Magrathea is forced to go into hibernation, waiting for the cosmic economy to revive enough to once again afford its breathtakingly exorbitant services.
Australia’s international education industry, likewise, risks becoming a victim of its own success. In the past week or so, Times Higher Education has revealed how prestigious antipodean universities have massively increased their overseas intake since 2014, and how the country is on the verge of overtaking the UK as the world’s second-biggest destination of international students.
But already there are indications that this explosive growth is destined for a turnaround – a correction, perhaps, to an export industry subject to natural peaks and troughs.
Alternatively, it could be a sign that Australia is cooking its golden goose.
When the country’s universities talk about international education, they wax lyrical about cultural competence and global connectedness, channelling the glory days of the post-war Colombo Plan when Australia educated an entire generation of Asia-Pacific leaders.
Foreign enrolments enrich our campuses and sow the seeds of friendship and lifelong networks between future leaders, they proclaim.
All this is true. But behind closed doors, there is another conversation that is overtly commercial. People in places where international education has never been about money, such as Scandinavia, look on with a mixture of admiration and distaste.
It’s hard to blame universities for chasing cash flow to maintain their stature in a world where higher education is fiercely competitive, and taxpayer dollars are hard to come by, but one wonders whether they are working against their own interests.
The disconnect in language is echoed in a disconnect in numbers. Australian international education benefits from publicly disclosed statistics that are detailed, informative and far more timely than figures on domestic students.
But sitting beside all this are the secret books – undisclosed data circulated among stakeholders but not available for public consumption, such as the confidential figures revealed by THE earlier this month. Or the trade department’s “Market Information Package” service to which some – notably, media – are not allowed to subscribe.
This sort of secretive squirrel behaviour does not inspire confidence in an industry that has been nurtured by taxpayer-funded institutions to become Australia’s biggest export service industry.
Frank Larkins, a former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, has wrangled years of statistics to paint a picture of how higher education exports have evolved over the past decade and a half.
His analysis shows that the Colombo Plan ideals are fading into the background as education exports focus on the rich pickings of China and, to a lesser extent, India at the expense of Colombo Plan mainstays such as Indonesia and Singapore.
These countries – along with strategically important partners such as Thailand, Japan and the UK – now send fewer students to Australia than they did 25 years ago.
Larkins says that the “narrowing demographic diversity profile” in Australian universities is more than a threat to their financial security and “the quality of the academic experience for all students”. It’s also a question of strategic regional engagement.
“The growth appears unplanned,” he told THE. “Are we getting ourselves into a situation of great vulnerability? We need more rigorous national planning of what’s in Australia’s best interests.”
Larkins says that international students, sometimes from a single nationality, already outnumber domestic students in some Australian university faculties. The confidential figures obtained by THE suggest that they are close to dominating entire institutions, with some universities’ overseas enrolments comprising close to half of published student numbers.
Universities deny this, saying that these enrolment figures include foreigners at subsidiary colleges. But their occasional caginess about disclosing the citizenship mix of their students raises questions in a debate about international students already clouded by definitional differences, and pathway colleges’ insistence that enrolment figures are matters of commercial confidence.
Australian universities somehow need to bring the two faces of their international industry together, keeping the Colombo Plan ideals alive on the gravy train. If they don’t, they could eventually find themselves like Magrathea: capable of conjuring a new world, but bereft of customers.