International students have been an important part of Australia for decades and will continue to be so.
They are part of our community, they build important people-to-people links, they boost our economy, and many go on to become outstanding Australian citizens.
Our decision to close our borders has been critical in keeping Australians safe from COVID-19, but it has obviously meant no international students entering the country.
The challenge to our universities from this is clear: less revenue.
But with every challenge comes opportunity.
Here we have a great opportunity: to strengthen our approach to international education, to grow new markets abroad, but also to ensure our universities are delivering for Australian students. After all, the primary role of our publicly funded institutions is to educate Australians.
The government will be exploring this opportunity, with the sector, over the next few months.
The starting point is to consider the core purposes of enrolling international students in Australian institutions.
Unfortunately, it looks to many like some institutions think there is just one purpose – to bring in dollars. This is important, as international students now account for a quarter of university revenues. But this financial objective must be balanced against at least three others.
First is to enhance the classroom and learning experience of Australian students.
International students create more diverse classrooms and bring valuable experiences and insights from around the world.
However, having over 60 percent of a classroom with international students from just one or two countries, is not optimising the student experience for Australians – nor for international students. This is particularly true if universities are not applying transparent and rigorous English language requirements for international students – a concern raised recently by the regulator, TEQSA
At Harvard, where I did my masters, classrooms were deliberately designed to have a mix of students from different countries.
Australia can and should do better in this respect.
The next objective is to ensure that Australia has the supply of workforce skills that we need to grow our economy.
According to the National Skills Commission, our greatest skills needs in the future will be in data and digital, the health profession and engineering – especially in the energy field.
However, currently almost half of international enrolments at universities are concentrated in commerce, while fields like engineering, maths, technology and health attract significantly lower enrolment shares than the OECD average.
In the US, two-thirds of international students study science, engineering and health, proving that it can be done.
One option could be to use levers, including migration levers, to encourage more students to study in the fields where we know we have shortages? We do this to encourage students to study in areas outside the big capitals. Could it be extended?
Finally, international students support our people-to-people linkages and the development of other nations.
It is a tremendous source of diplomatic strength for Australia when many of the leaders in our region have been educated in our country and have connections and a positive experience.
Again, I believe that there are opportunities to do more, particularly by extending further the reach of our education system to beyond in-classroom learning.
With onshore learning disrupted, now is also the time to more aggressively explore the massive opportunity to expand the reach of our education system by developing new online or hybrid delivery models to grow and reach new markets around the world.
Some of our neighbours have enormous requirements to upskill their populations, but for many of their students studying here will be out of reach. India, for example, has an ambition to train more than 400 million people. Indonesia, an additional 57 million by 2030.
The global e-learning market is forecast to grow from $130 billion to more than $470 billion by 2026.
Other countries are already moving into this space, as are some of our own institutions but we have the opportunity to be more ambitious. The UK, for example, has 58 percent of its international higher education students offshore. Our comparable figure is 22 percent.
This is where much of our future growth will come, and in doing so, we can support the development ambitions of our region.
None of the issues I have outlined are straightforward and they will take time.
In the short term, we will continue to work with the university sector to support their sustainability.
We have already committed a record $20 billion dollars for the sector in 2021 and many universities are still reporting surpluses.
But we will keep a close watch on the situation and continue to work with universities and the state and territory governments on having potential pilots for student returns this year.
My hope is that the borders will be close to normal again next year with international students able to return in larger numbers. But we cannot guarantee this as there is still so much uncertainty.
In the meantime, let’s embrace the opportunity that the border closure brings and set a course for the medium term that has less risk, is more sustainable for our universities and works as much for Australian students as international ones.