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International student report emphasises their value, but not the means

International education is our third-biggest export. But can our universities cope with the demand? AAP/Julian Smith

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has just released a Draft National Strategy for International Education for consultation. While the strategy acknowledges the significance of international education as an export industry powerhouse that brought in A$16.3 billion in 2013-14, it fails to acknowledge the challenges institutions face in catering to this burgeoning market.

What the strategy got right

The strategy acknowledges the impact of international education on secondary industries such as rental accommodation, hospitality and tourism. It points to the ongoing benefits from this sector in terms of the bridges it builds between Australia and the rest of the world.

In particular, the strategy highlights the collaborative ventures Australia has with the rest of the world because of international education through research, trade, investment and social engagement.

The strategy recommends that in order to make the international education industry one of the mainstays of the Australian economy, we need to expand beyond the Asian region. Emerging markets in Latin America and the Middle East should be targeted, while still recruiting from the traditional sources of China, India and southeast Asia.

In order to accomplish this, the draft provides a multi-pronged strategy around three central ideas. These are:

  • strong national policies for education, training and research to ensure our reputation as one of the world’s leading providers of education is intact;
  • research collaborations and two-way movement of researchers, academics and professionals;
  • and ensuring international students get value for money with a high-quality education.

While the strategy is no doubt aspirational and driven by economic interests, it was heartening to read its acknowledgement of the value of the sector and the benefits international students bring to Australia.

Challenges for universities and other education providers

While the strategy acknowledges the value international students add to Australia, it failed to acknowledge the potential impact on institutions.

The strategy basically maps out the benefits of expanding the international education sector by providing strategies for attracting international students to Australia. However, it fails to offer a single proposal for how institutions could be supported to meet increasing numbers of diverse students on their campuses.

Instead, the strategy says that the government will leave it to institutions to:

make their own decisions about academic offerings and modes of delivery, universities are already exploring the opportunities and challenges of faster delivery platforms.

This is a not-so-subtle hint towards more blended types of learning, which generally combine face-to-face teaching with online teaching.

While there is nothing wrong with increasing the international student intake from non-traditional regions – which adds richness to the diversity of the student body – institutions will need to put in place measures to support their staff in intercultural competency.

One international student is not like the next. Institutions cannot assume that international students from Latin America or the Middle East are (culturally) the same as international students from China or India.

Institutions need to support staff to negotiate through classrooms – real or virtual – which would become increasingly multicultural. They also need to encourage and support staff in creating courses that allow for this diversity to shine through. Here, using real-world examples from the regions and countries the students come from would enhance the learning experience.

International students offer Australia boundless opportunities economically and culturally. However, we have to be able to offer them a worthwhile experience and opportunity in return. Universities and other providers ill-equipped to deal with the number and diversity of international students won’t be able to provide international students the rich experience they’re offering us.

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