Taking in over 1,500 responses, the survey conducted by the University of New South Wales found 54% of participants believed the government should limit overseas students coming to Australia, with 36% disagreeing and 10% indicating they were unsure.
“How we communicate collectively on [international education] has never been more serious”
Industry stakeholders have attributed ongoing political events as direct and indirect influences for the result, citing commentary on English proficiency, employment, domestic enrolments, and infrastructure in major cities as detrimental to community perceptions.
“Public opinion has been changed because of politicians making remarks on international students time and again without doing adequate research about international students’ contribution to the community,” said CISA national president Bijay Sapkota.
“It’s very unfortunate that despite international students… contributing in Australia, the wider community is failing to recognise that effort because of politicians’ bad remarks.”
Despite the setback to international education’s reputation, domestic higher education saw a substantive positive response in the UNSW survey, with 74% of participants agreeing a university education enhanced career prospects. And 75% said they believed funding should be provided for aspiring Australians.
A separate survey from Universities Australia also found two-thirds of respondents opposed recent cuts to Commonwealth funding.
While a victory for universities, Deakin University vice-chancellor Jane de Hollander said positive public opinion around domestic funding may have come at the expense of international students.
“How we as vice-chancellors and universities communicate collectively on [international education] has never been more serious,” she said.
“Of late, we have been timid because we’ve been involved in an argument with the government, particularly about money.”
Speaking at the QS Rankings by Subject Summit in Canberra, she added that further work was needed to understand the context of the response, saying there was now a danger that negative public debate was “starting to consume the community”.
IEAA chief executive Phil Honeywood, meanwhile, said the result should be seen as a warning for the international education industry.
“PM Morrison blames international students to distract from his own failure”
“Survey results such as this remind all international education stakeholders that we have to do a lot more to communicate the benefits of international education to the wider community,” he said, adding the result could motivate further negative rhetoric.
“This type of feedback is not helpful and could well play into the usual right-wing and trade union political agendas that everything related to international education is negative rather than positive.”
At this stage, the findings have not resulted in any public policy announcements by either side of government in the lead up to this year’s federal election, and in a statement to The PIE News, education minister Dan Tehan dampened concerns a Coalition government would limit international students.
“Our government is working to promote regional Australia as a destination for international students, so our regional communities can also enjoy the economic and cultural benefits that international students bring,” he said.
“Only the Morrison government will keep our economy strong and allow our export industries to thrive.”
But the Labor opposition lambasted the government, saying it has used international students as a scapegoat for broader issues.
“Prime Minister Morrison blames international students for congestion to distract from his own failure to invest in infrastructure,” Labor MP Julian Hill told The PIE.
“Bizarrely, though, this damaging rhetoric comes as universities are told to go and recruit more students to make up for his $2.2 billion funding cut. This cut is fuelling a risky dependency and a war over market share as universities are forced to cannibalise each other and chase lower-quality students.”
The Universities Australia conference is currently underway in Canberra.