Why the US election matters for Australian higher education

President Barack Obama addressing a large crowd at University of Wisconsin – could he or his competitor Mitt Romney change higher education in Australia? EPA/Tannen Maury

US presidential elections generally have little direct impact on Australia. And broadly speaking, this campaign is shaping up to be no different.

Despite their ideological differences, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have adopted similar positions on major foreign policy questions especially in relation to our Asian region. And our two countries will remain close allies regardless of whoever wins the presidency.

Nevertheless, there’s something under the surface of this campaign that could have major ramifications for higher education, one of our most important sectors, and just as our universities were hoping to get back on their feet.

Fierce competition

Since 2009, Australian universities have been battered by the “perfect storm” — an intractably high Australian dollar, bad foreign press about the education experience in Australia, and tighter visa restrictions.

The Knight Review released last year held out much promise for the sector to regain some lost competitive advantage in the international student market, in large part through enhanced work options for foreign graduates.

These reforms seem to be working. Several universities have reported that the new policy settings have caused a small uptick in student enrolments from Asia.

But a new challenge is emerging. Obama and Romney each have plans to attract more highly skilled immigrants with the lure of American residency.

Attractive offers

According to the Romney campaign website: “every foreign student who obtains an advanced degree in math, science, or engineering at a US university should be granted permanent residency”. These changes, a Romney campaign report explains, would offer graduates “the certainty required to start businesses and drive American innovation”.

While Obama has made no similar policy pronouncements during this campaign, his intentions are clear. In January this year, the president favoured “stapling greencards to the diplomas of certain foreign-born graduates in science, technology, engineering and math fields”, as per a US federal government report.

Whatever the outcome of the election, it seems likely that comprehensive immigration reform is on the agenda in the US.

This would be a smart win-win for America. The US would attract talented foreign students to its universities and encourage those already in the country to remain after graduation. These changes could be especially beneficial in helping create the advanced manufacturing jobs both candidates have talked so much about on the hustings.

Bringing in talented science and math graduates is a key foundational step in spurring the innovation that leads to job growth and wealth creation.

But America’s gain could come at Australia’s expense.

Real implications

Asian students are attracted by what US colleges offer; an outstanding education, safe residential communities, an extraordinary network of influential alumni and a degree from a university with a global brand. It’s the total package, and it’s seen as a higher quality education than that offered by Australian universities. Or indeed anywhere else.

And cash-strapped US universities know it. Last year, there was a 43% increase in new Chinese undergraduates on US campuses alone. The added drawcard of US residency for science, maths and engineering graduates could supercharge recruiting efforts of US universities in Asia.

The US also has tremendous capacity for growth. The American education sector is 15 times the size of Australia’s but less than 5% of students on campus currently come from overseas. This untapped potential could signal trouble on the horizon for Australia.

A precious resource

The recently released Asian Century White Paper makes clear just how critical international students are to Australia’s universities.

Roughly one in four students on Australian campuses come from Asia, making it the main revenue source of this $15 billion industry. And Australian residency is a leading reason why students come here for their education.

Of course, immigration and education is not a zero-sum game. But if these new policies in the US come into effect, it could result in many more quality foreign students choosing to enrol in American universities instead of coming to Australia.

However, there are even bigger 21st century shifts underway. The momentum of global job opportunities is decidedly moving towards Asia. As such, new residency pathways are likely to be less attractive to Asian students over the next decade or so if their future jobs are going to be back home. And the continued rise in quality of Asia’s universities means they, too, are a growing threat to Australian universities.

Indeed, the Asian Century white paper correctly recommends all Australian universities should have a greater “in-Asia” presence.

Times of change

The global financial crisis heralded the arrival of a new era for international higher education. It is an era defined as much by the rapid emergence of educational innovations — like multinational universities and Massive Open Online Courses “MOOCs” — as by the rapid and unpredictable dynamics of the global marketplace.

Australia still has significant leverage with Asian students. It remains a premium destination and was first-to-market in recruiting Asian students and developing excellent relationships across the region. Residency policy levers, therefore, have their place.

But the competitive advantage challenge now facing Australian universities is to build an educational experience that will continue to draw foreign students to Australia. This means ensuring our universities best prepare Asian students to succeed in the 21st century global job market.