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AIEC attendees have their say on challenges

Kicking off the AIEC Conference in Adelaide on October 11, IDP Education CEO Tennealle O’Shannessy pointed to AI and technology, policy decisions and shifts in student needs and demands as “drivers of change” and challenges the sector is facing.

IDP's O’Shannessy at the AIEC conference in Adelaide. Photo: The PIE News

Community engagement enabling international students to form friendships with Australian counterparts, as well as wider society, will be key

“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,” she told an audience of some 1,700.

During the conference, The PIE spoke with attendees to hear their thoughts on the biggest challenges the country’s sector faces. Many spoke to the importance of social license, messaging and communicating the impact of international education.

“We are going to have to deal with an underlying racism that pervades Australia,” said founder and director of Learning Cities International, David Wilmoth.

“I think there is a bit of push back within some sectors of Australian society around international students falsely thinking about housing and jobs,” he said. “I think that’s going to flaw Australia’s reputation if it continues unchallenged.”

Other competitor countries – such as Canada and New Zealand – have dealt with acknowledging Indigenous populations, which Australia is still overcoming, he suggested, pointing to the yes-no referendum on October 14.

Community engagement enabling international students to form friendships with Australian counterparts, as well as wider society, will be key, he continued.

“We need more community-based programs that engage international students in Australia, originating from the communities. It’s got to be two-way, not just from the providers alone,” he said.

Pauline Le Floch, student mobility manager at Macquarie University, was one to highlight communicating the value of international experiences with employers.

“I feel so many people are unaware [of the outbound New Colombo Plan program] in the business industry here. Like Erasmus in Europe, everyone knows about it,” she said.

Originally from France, Le Floch joined the Australian sector six years ago, and acknowledged the improvements in study abroad programs. But there are also issues about access and funding in outbound education, she continued.

“[When] I started here, I felt like there was just no awareness of the benefits in terms of employability but I can see the difference just in six years’ time.”

Despite “a massive push” to build an alumni community, raise awareness and link the program more with industry, “a lot of the students don’t really see a program overseas for credit as a real investment for their future career”.

Institutions and government put much funding into international recruitment but often overlook the soft-power aspect of the outbound programs like NCP, she suggested.

“You send students to Indonesia and Vietnam, and they’re like literally soft power – they spread the word about your branding, about your university, about what it is like to be in Australia,” she said.

“Student recruitment gets a lot of funding and a lot of attention, and then [student mobility teams are] left to really push on with the student soft power and global engagement, but there’s not a lot of funding there.”

“Student recruitment gets a lot of funding and a lot of attention”

Macquarie has introduced a strategy to allow academic champions to “change the narrative” and encourage students to opt for the Indo-Pacific study opportunities over options in the UK, Canada and the US.

NCP scholarship recipients – numbers of which are very limited – are given outstanding service by case managers, but NCP mobility recipients are often overlooked.

“Those guys are left alone to do everything. I find it such a shame not to really engage them more and so it becomes this rite of passage, like Erasmus has been,” she said, adding that the program should be widened beyond undergraduate students.

“Now it’s been 10 years, you know, it’s not just four or five. Erasmus is like 20 plus… I feel if it was like Erasmus, expanded to PG level and extended to longer term, I think that would help.”

Desma Smith, who is associate director for international student advisory & support at Swinburne University of Technology, pointed to challenges around quality or quantity in recruitment.

“Experience and retention are the buzzwords at the moment, but there’s so many things that go into retention and it can go back as simple as who you bring in first place,” she said.

Advisory and support teams, as well as students, often have additional stress if adjustments are made for quality or quantity.

If student numbers is prioritised there can be issues with English language and capabilities of being able to complete the studies, she said.

“For us, as an after sales service, it adds to their stress, it adds to my staff stress, it adds to the success and the retention,” she said.

The sector can be circular, Smith – who has worked at a number of different institutions during her career – continued.

“We’ve had times where agents have been pretty targeted on how they move students through and what they get out of it. We’ve already had one clean sweep in the industry many years back,” she said, pointing to a time when institutions were asked to reregister with authorities as they sought to cut out less scrupulous providers.

“Post-Covid, we’re seeing something similar… It’s a little bit circular. That’s certainly a challenge, quality versus quantity.”

Additionally, challenges around messaging to students is nothing new. In a student roundtable discussion, students raised issues about needing information on accommodation before they arrive.

“Everything we’re talking about here we’ve talked about for 20 years in conferences,” Smith said.

“Well, we run pre-departure webinars to do exactly that. But of several thousand students who are coming in, there might be 100 at each webinar. They don’t know what they don’t know and when they need to know is different for each person on a timeline. What the ultimate answer is to all of that, I don’t think any of us have found.”

“There is a quandary here”

Former CEO of IDP, Denis Blight, emphasised the biggest challenge is grappling international student recruitment on the one hand and Australia’s immigration policies on the other.

“There is a quandary here, there is a dilemma,” he said.

“If we are experiencing skills shortages in Australia, then our immigration problem should surely concentrate on that in terms of the makeup of our immigration route to give higher weight to skills,” he told The PIE.

“Having said that I don’t want to rule out the prospective of using the international education program and recruitment as one of the avenues for that.”

If students are “properly advised” on the prospect of short-term and long-term employment in Australia, it can boost recruitment, he acknowledged.

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