Push to diversify Australia’s international student cohort under new government plan

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The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the sector, with border closures seeing student enrolments fall by up to 70 per cent on pre-pandemic levels in some parts. 

“The reopening of borders, the prioritisation of international students under the National Plan to Transition Australia’s National COVID-19 Response (the National Plan) and vaccine recognition will drive sector recovery in 2022,” the strategy says. 

Part of that will involve diversifying student cohorts to reduce financial risk and maximise the student experience, the government says. 

Government data showed the top five markets in Australian universities last year accounted for 72 per cent of enrolments, including 37 per cent from China, 21 per cent from India and 14 per cent from the next three top markets. The remaining 28 per cent came from other markets.

This compares to key competitor markets such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, where the strategy says “diversification is increasingly a strategy for supporting sustainable growth in international education enrolments”. 

In the US, 36 per cent of enrolments came from China and 14 per cent from India, while 39 per cent came from other markets last year. The share coming from other markets was as high as 55 per cent in the UK. 

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The strategy says Australia “will continue to cultivate strong relationships with key partner countries, including India and China, as they remain valued partners in international education.” 

The government will introduce new transparency measures around student diversity, including a diversification index. 

Minister for Education Alan Tudge said while international education was one of Australia’s “great success stories”, things need to be done differently in the medium term. 

“We want to see our international student market flourish again, but we have to ensure that the Australian student experience is also prioritised. This means that our public universities need to have a higher priority on diversity in their classrooms,” Mr Tudge said.

“Some public universities have as many as 80 per cent of their international students from one country. This creates financial risk for those institutions, but it can also diminish the student experience – for both Australian and international students.”

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The strategy also outlines ways to diversify courses into online and offshore delivery. While 58 per cent of the United Kingdom’s international students study offshore, Australia’s share is 20 per cent. 

“There is an enormous opportunity to grow our international student market through high-quality offshore courses, similar to what the United Kingdom has done,” Mr Tudge said.

“We could potentially be educating 10 million students in this manner in a decade or two, supporting the development of our neighbours as well as providing a revenue source for our universities.” 

International Education Association of Australia CEO Phil Honeywood is the convenor of the Council for International Education, which has overseen the strategy.

He told SBS News it is crucial the sector now has a blueprint to work towards. 

“Equally, the strategy will always work best if the form can take place in partnership with government,” he said. 

“With seven federal ministers having now signed off on this 10-year national strategy, we look forward to working with them to achieve the outcomes that will be beneficial – not just to education providers but also to student welfare as well.

“That is a key part of the strategy.”

Mr Honeywood said the strategy has a strong emphasis on the need to improve mental health support, safe and affordable student faculty accommodation and integration between domestic and international students. 

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It also aims to deliver international education that “meets Australia’s skills needs”. 

Currently, almost half of Australia’s international enrolments at universities are concentrated in business and commerce, while skill areas such as engineering, maths, technology and health have much lower shares than the OECD average. 

“With strong English language skills and Australian qualifications, international graduates are well-positioned to fill skills gaps and apply for residential and employment pathways, including through the Skilled Migration Program,” the strategy says. 

The strategy follows an earlier government announcement this week, with international students who have been unable to travel to Australia during the pandemic able to apply for replacement visas.

The government will also increase the length of stay for temporary graduate visas from two to three years. 

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa changes would put Australia on a competitive footing internationally. 

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