For those of you who live outside Australia, Australian education may not be an interesting subject to discuss. However, we in Australia understand that international education has long been the major export commodity from Australia to the World, mostly to Asia. We think there is no such thing as the end of this industry, as long as international students (and their parents) still need to speak English and put a high value on "Western' education and degree. Some Australian national statistics confirm that we need to revise the way we manage our international education policy.
The latest Australian Federal Government figures show a 1.4 per cent decline in enrollments since December 2009 year for a sector that has grown almost 11 per cent a year for the past eight years. International students make up about a quarter of all university enrollments in Australia, so any reduction in intake has a serious impact on the bottom line. What contribute to the drop of international students? Apart from the obvious short-term factors such as complication in immigration policy and the application for international student visas, competition from the UK and the US, and the solid of Australian dollars, I would like to propose two long-term critical factors which are related to the demise of international education industry.
The first, and perhaps most important, issue is quality in Australian higher education system. In 2010, Australian Education International (AEI) commissioned a study on international students' satisfaction. It is reported in the study that the five most important factors influencing students' decision on where to study were: Quality of teaching (with 96% of respondents identifying this factor as important or very important); Reputation of a qualification from the institution (93%); personal safety (92%); reputation of the institution (91%); and research quality (90%). The concept of quality of international education goes beyond accommodating the learning needs of international students arising out of their own cultural and linguistic experience.
Stakeholders in international education need to address key issues such as how international students are treated in and outside the university, what are the implications of international and local students learning to learn together, and how to promote healthy lifestyle and well-being among international students in this country?
The government tries to create quality education through different mechanisms. One prominent strategy is the coalition of research bloc of the country's eight elite universities known as the Group of Eight (GO8). It is recently reported that the federal government's proposal to provide an additional 110,000 undergraduate student places by 2020, and 235,000 by 2030, within the GO8 system is putting quantity over quality and will result in much higher fees or greatly diminished academic standards. Hence, it is unlikely that the research intensive plan will be easily achieved when academic staff doubles their teaching and administrative load.
The second issue, for me, is the way we treat international students in Australia. A number of research studies in international education and trade in education service confirm that, for most international students, Australia is perceived as a safe, cheap and comfortable place to study. These points can be found and imitated in some other countries that export education to the international market. As a person working in this industry, I hardly hear a quick response from the University or the Australian government to international students to show our concern for their well-being. For instance, with the current disaster in Japan, we have not received a strong message from any major institutions or government to share how much we care for our Japanese students and their families.
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Not so long ago, the spate of "racially-motivated attacks" on Indian students drew flak from all across the globe after several Indian students were injured and some even lost their lives. The quick response was several trips to India by top government officers, in order to promote Australia as a safe place to study. Instead of stating that the situation was not racially-motivated attack, the Australian government should have addressed some clear strategies to protect our international students from crime against our international students.
When it comes to the "value' of Australian education, not much has been discussed and implemented among stakeholders in the international education industry. Henry George once stated that the value of a thing in any given time and place is the largest amount of exertion that anyone will render in exchange for it. What is the value of Australian education in the eyes of international students? What do they want in return from the money and time they spend in Australia? For instance, an international undergraduate business student at the University of Melbourne pays $31,776 a year. On top of the tuition fees are living expenses, other non-financial expenses and life opportunities.
Clearly, focusing on being an easy place to live and study is not quite the right message to send to international students (and their parents). Most Anglophone countries can modify their economic and education policies if they need to attract international students by focusing on offering cheap and easy courses to study. However, not all countries can provide a world class education system. The United States of America is a classic example when we think about the sustainability of international education industry. The Ivy league system and the balance of research and teaching universities in America can ensure the quality of existing teaching system and the creation of new knowledge. This is the message that all stakeholders in international education need to send to our international students and their parents. Australia must be perceived as a quality place for education, not a place to visit Koala and Kangaroo.
The image of being an easy place to study may be linked with the lack of preparation to offer an excellent education (and lifestyle) to our international students. Some recent examples include Canberra's decision to lower entry requirements for international students, the increasing numbers of poor quality higher education degrees among public regional universities and private companies in most major cities in Australia, and the poor reactive and defensive strategies to support international students' welfare and security. We cannot leave these issues with the government alone. As an academic, I believe all stakeholders in international education must acknowledge these issues and work towards the improvement of international students' life and well-being in this country, if we need to offer an expensive value of Australian education in the global market.
Nattavud Pimpa is a senior lecturer in international management at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) in Australia. He is also on twitter.com/nattpimpa