Are they coming and where from? April has been a big month for new hopes and mixed signals on Australia’s biggest immediate export conundrum – the return of students from around the region to education and training institutions.
New minister Alan Tudge kicked off with a fresh gameplan for post-COVID international education. It reflected the sea-change in Coalition government thinking from the sunny uplands of endless (think Chinese) foreign student flows five years ago to the current discontent with China-dependent universities complaining about the impact of the pandemic.
He has told education institutions to wind back their dependence on students from the two most populous countries in Asia (China and India) and look elsewhere – just like the wine and barley exporters.
But the universities have only added to the complexity of this issue with some of the most China-dependent Group of Eight institutions reporting unexpectedly large profits despite the COVID complaints, while the Australian National University, which pioneered a foreign student cap, has reported a big loss.
Ironically, despite bilateral tensions, China has made it easier for its students to continue their Australian degrees online at home, while India has not done this, prompting its students to look towards countries with less severe travel restrictions.
Some state governments, specifically NSW and Victoria, are taking the first steps towards running student quarantine programs after federal government equivocation.
And the Asia Taskforce A Second Chance report has backed continued engagement with Chinese students as a potential stabilising force in in bilateral commerce. But the results from international student surveys are mixed.
The 2021 QS International Student Survey found 58 per cent of students would study in a country with borders already open, while 42 per cent said they would wait for their preferred country. While good COVID management made Australia attractive, students are also more willing these days to switch country choices, making a clear return timetable important for Australia. Meanwhile, a survey of Chinese students found that 57 per cent would either reject, or might reject, studying in Australia if relations between the two countries were not good.
And a new forecast by the Mitchell Institute suggests international education export revenue could halve to $20 billion by the end of next year, although universities will suffer less than other training and service providers.
Education has long been a key part of Australia’s regional engagement, from its status as a big export revenue earner to its soft diplomacy role educating the future leaders of the region, starting with the old Colombo Plan in the 1950s. But Tudge’s consultation paper on a new strategy seems to take this much further by placing the “rebalancing of global political and economic power” alongside online education and university viability as reasons for a new approach.
While education providers have not been told how to replace plentiful Chinese and Indian students with others, they have been told that future foreign enrolments should be determined more by Australia’s skills needs than what foreign students or countries actually want or need.
This reflects Australia’s post-pandemic concern about skills shortages. But ten years ago it was the abuse of a short-term training focus for education visas by both students and training providers which was partly responsible for triggering a diplomatic row with India.