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Three takeaways from AIEC 2023

More than 1,700 international educators convened in Adelaide from October 10-13 to discuss policy, growth and sustainability of the sector at AIEC. The PIE has unpacked key points that readers should take note of.

Photo: The PIE News

A number of speakers pointed to long-term difficulties with connections to local communities and students


The sector is increasingly solutions focused and government appears to be listening and open to collaboration, as both education minister Jason Clare and minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor said during their speeches.

Recent announcements from the government – including capping work hours to 24 hours per week, ending the concurrent loophole, banning onshore commission and cross-ownership and raising the proof of funds for visas to $24,000 – are largely welcome by sector stakeholders.

The Genuine Temporary Entrant requirement, as previously reported by The PIE, is likely to change, and the 300-word statement students are required to supply is expected to be removed, IEAA chief executive officer Phil Honeywood told an AEERI fringe event.

Chair of the Australian Universities International Directors’ Forum, Jogvan Klein, told the same audience that the government is showing “good policy intent”. However, several the PIE spoke with said the devil will be in the detail in how policy changes will be implemented.

“We can all play a role in promoting the importance and benefits of international education to those outside the industry, to engage in conversations and to inform those who make decisions and shape policy,” IDP CEO Tennealle O’Shannessy said as she opened the conference.

“We can all play a role in promoting international education to those outside the industry”

Social license – as highlighted at the 2021 iteration of the event – was often noted on during panel discussions, especially around accommodation shortages.

Research released during the event outlined issues with an international student levy that the government proposed in the Universities Accord interim report.

Angela Lehmann, head of research at The Lygon Group, said the suggestion to redistribute international fee income would damage the sector’s social license.

“In a way, it could be seen to confirm a belief that students are here to make money for institutions rather than the many other contributions students make to Australian communities, economies and national life,” she said.

“Students don’t like hearing that they’re a commodity any more than I like hearing that I’m a tourism FTE when I go on a holiday,” Jane Johnson CEO of StudyAdelaide said during one panel discussion.

Diversity is not always easy

Julian Hill MP, speaking about the Trade Subcommittee inquiry report which is due to be released imminently, called for “Team Australia” to focus on a select number of new markets.

“Getting consensus on that is not going to be straightforward,” he said. “But you can identify perhaps 10 countries and if we can narrow that down to half a dozen, [then we can] commit to a five year market development plan.”

Countries he suggested included a “couple of countries in South America, India obviously, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and then Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria”.

As in other countries, immigration departments have limited diversification efforts in some respects.

Honeywood indicated that the home affairs department has “traditionally worried about visa overstays” among students from Africa.

“Many of our universities go offshore to Africa, they interview bright, really capable young African students and the visa rejection rates are very high. So we haven’t nailed the rationale behind this,” he said.

The organisation continues to lobby officials in the department, Honeywood continued.

“The UK can have Nigeria as their number three student source country consistently year after year, but I think there’s only one state in Australia, Western Australia, that has an African country in their top 10 –and that’s Kenya as their eighth largest market,” he said.

Western Australia has had success diversifying its international student population, with StudyPerth CEO Derryn Belford emphasising to The PIE that Bhutan is now the state’s second largest cohort. The 7,028 Bhutanese students is second only to Indian students in the state up to July 2023, who make up 9,059 statistics show.

Equally, South East Asia offers Australia diversification opportunities as another panel suggested.

As one of the fastest growing regions in the world, speakers in the SE Asia partnerships session pointed to Australia’s recent Southeast Asia strategy, as well as the 2022 Australia-Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy, as promising high-level engagement with the region.

Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia, Siswo Pramono, emphasised the 250,000 Australian alumni in Indonesia as well as the four Australian campuses in the country. Deputy vice-chancellor, International and Engagement at RMIT, Saskia Loer Hansen pointed to the institution’s SE Asia strategy published last year.

“[The whole region] offers diversity,” she said.

Different destination, same problems

Like in other study destinations, the immigration department can be detrimental for sector ambitions.

Julian Hill stated that if the sector wants to diversify in Africa, the home affairs department will have “to be there and working with the leading providers, trying to do some market development to allow them to take some calculated risks”.

“We need a better partnership with the department to give us a bit of a break while we build that market, because it takes probably two or three years for a top quality provider,” he said.

“We don’t have a first mover advantage so we do need to be realistic, that it’s a mature market going north, but we should be able to do some good stuff there.”

Along with the risk to social license and reputation, as well as accommodation challenges, highlighted at the event, a number of speakers pointed to long-term difficulties with connections to local communities and students.

“I don’t think we’ve done such a good job around promoting the value beyond that transactional reference to money to Australian society more broadly,” Sarah Todd, vice president (Global) at Griffith University, said.

“If we pop down into Adelaide – and this is a university town – still I have a feeling if we asked the average person what international education means, they wouldn’t talk in the terms that we talk.”

Hill spoke of the issue of loneliness and isolation “coming up year after year” among international students.

“It’s really sad the percentage of students who leave our country after being [here], and say ‘I wanted to, but I never really made an Australian friend’. If there was one indicator that I reckon we can focus some of our student welfare collectively on, it’s just that sense of welcoming and connecting students in with the Australian community,” he said.

“There’s not much the Commonwealth can do about that,” Hill added, pointing to local initiatives as a way to “bridge the divide”.

Johnson at StudyAdelaide said international students need to feel they are a valued part of the community. That sense of belonging is also attached to mental wellbeing, speakers suggested.

“We are seeing a universal mental wellbeing problem”

Mental health needs a cohesive approach, said Johnson. During the pandemic there was a clear focused on collaborating around best practice, and the sector has “maintained that between Covid and now”, she said.

International students also need to be aware of the tools available to them, such as the G’Day Mates initiative at the University of South Australia which was highlighted as one example of good practice.

“We are seeing a universal [mental wellbeing] problem, for both domestic and international students,” said Kent Anderson, deputy vice chancellorUniversity of Newcastle.

“What that has done is, it’s made awareness of the services that are on offer and any kind of stigma to accessing those services much lower,” he said. “But then that has a knock on effect which is the need grows for those services.”

The sector also needs to be clear that it is communicating with students in need “on the channels that they’re actually going to read”, Johnson concluded.

  • AIEC returns in October 2024 in Melbourne with the theme of “The human element”.

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