The elephant in the chat room: will international students stay at home?

With free, quality online education from brand-name universities, will overseas students come to Australia? Elephant image from www.shutterstock.com

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: We continue our series on the rise of online and blended learning and how free online courses are set to transform the higher education sector. Today, Wollongong University’s Thomas Birtchnell looks at what online education will mean for the international student market.


In 1923, a young boy leaves his small village in India and travels by boat to study at Columbia University in the United States.

This is a time when only five out of every hundred of India’s three hundred million people can read and write. His story, featured in a Boy Scouts’ magazine, was billed as “The Boy Who Would Educate India”. He would return to India with his degree to “teach the people something besides religion” and put India on the path to development.

The aim of the feature was to be an inspirational story for young Americans – they, too, should strive for an education and help others.

The Boy Who Would Educate India. Boy Scout Magazine, 1923

But not all goes to plan. His job at as a messenger boy at the Western Union falls through (most likely due to visa issues). In order to complete his degree, he takes up an informal job as a carer for a wealthy family’s children. And his own family need him back in India.

Unable to balance his lowly job with his study, he makes the long trip home without his doctorate, scrubbing the decks to pay for his passage.

This story will seem somewhat familiar for many international students from India today, who come to Australia expecting to earn a degree, find a secure job and eventually to apply for residency. This is the dream of a better life through mobility.

But in many cases they find themselves balancing study with poor work and living conditions and, once their degree is finished, they are told to head back home.

But does the arrival of free quality online education change all this? Had “The Boy Who Would Educate India” been a student today, would he have still made the journey?

Study Without Moving

New technologies are making their way into the global education system and may challenge the way universities operate.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), for example, offer expert tuition from the world’s most prestigious universities for free — Stanford, Harvard, Columbia and now Melbourne to name a few.

Most seriously for education exporters, these new technologies appear to threaten the lucrative international student market, now a considerable slice of universities’ incomes. The market for Indian students alone is worth over $3 billion to the US, and was expected to grow exponentially alongside aspirant middle classes.

With MOOCs, rich students from poor regions can earn degrees from premier providers from the “comfort” of their own homes. In the future they may even interact with others through iPad Doubles (see video below). But at the moment this interaction mostly occurs in chatrooms and quizzes.

Face-to-face tuition could become a luxury commodity. University senior executives and policymakers need to consider this conundrum in how to target infrastructure, tuition, graduate placement, student experience and — much less publicised — pathways to residency.

A Better Life Through Mobility

There is a very good reason universities and policymakers are so far unfazed by MOOCs. They recognise that for international students the fantasy of self-betterment through a combination of learning and mobility is what motivates them to study abroad.

Australian University Games advertisement for international students.