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Austrade pushes for 1 million students by 2025

Australia’s trade commission, Austrade, has set the ambitious target of doubling onshore international students in its market development plan, Australian International Education 2025. Industry stakeholders have responded with cautious optimism, wary that current accommodation, employability and public perception problems could worsen as numbers increase.

Austrade says its market growth strategy is built for the sector and with the sector. It has held a series of consultation workshops with sector stakeholders. Photo: Austrade.

"We can’t rest on our laurels"

Over the next 10 years, Austrade would like to see the number of international students in Australia increase to one million and the number of students reached offshore to 10 million.

John Angley, general manager at Austrade, said the plan fits with two pillars of the government’s national international education strategy, which is expected to be finalised before the end of the year: reaching out to the world and staying competitive.

“In a lot of countries one student can’t afford to do a formal course, but also quite often they don’t need to do a formal course”

“We’re trying to encourage the sector to think about what they can do over the next ten years to build on the success so far but we can’t rest on our laurels,” he told The PIE News.

In addition to increasing numbers, the plan aims to diversify international student populations. “We’ll always be welcoming eligible Indian and Chinese students but we think that if we’re going to grow the size of the market, we should also take the opportunity and diversify where students come from,” remarked Angley.

Latin American countries, especially Brazil and Colombia, have been earmarked for growth as well as countries in West Africa and the Gulf states. “There’s quite a few markets which aren’t new to Australia but have potential to build stronger relationships,” Angley he said.

Traditional transnational education models (branch campuses or franchised curricula) have become a staple in Australia’s international education sector, reaching a number of students which Angley said is “hard to judge”.

But in the next decade, in order to reach 10 million students, Austrade will collaborate with edtech providers and invest heavily in online provision, which Angley said is more affordable.

Reaching out to governments that face huge skill gaps to offer non-credit bearing training courses is also high on Austrade’s agenda.

“In a lot of countries one student can’t afford to do a formal course, but also quite often they don’t need to do a formal course… so it’s about meeting the demands rather than telling them what we’ve got to offer,” he said.

“One of the challenges is do Australian providers have the appetite for further growth?”

A 2014 Deloitte report pegged international education to be one of five drivers of Australia’s future prosperity. However, there are challenges facing the sector: specifically capacity, maintaining quality and keeping public opinion on its side.

Austrade said it is developing the strategy with the sector based on public consultations and roundtable discussions, but there is still an air of caution among stakeholders, especially at a time when business is good.

“One of the challenges is do Australian providers have the appetite for further growth? Or are they comfortable getting the kind of growth they’ve got now, business as usual,” said Angley.

Managing public perception was a key concern voiced at the Australia International Education Conference in Adelaide this month. During an Austrade discussion on the strategy, a call from the floor urging government to lead a campaign getting the word out about the benefits of international students to the public was met with applause.

Support from local communities will be crucial, agreed Chris Ziguras, president of the International Education Association of Australia.

Referencing the clampdown of student visas in the UK, he said, “I think everybody in Australia sees the possibility of that happening so they don’t want to get to the point – where one or the other of the major political parties sees it as politically or electorally advantageous to reduce the number of foreigners in society and particularly the numbers of international students.”

“The major risk that we would see something similar to what’s happening in the UK where there may be a restriction on work rights”

Related to public perception is the challenge of building sufficient accommodation that harmoniously integrates into Australian communities. There are currently huge investments from universities, private investors and local governments to create purpose built student accommodation.

“There a big urban planning challenge, for local governments in particular,” Ziguras commented, but added: “What we have on our side in Australia is because the scale of international education is so big, governments are very acutely aware of its importance and there’s a lot of international students, which makes them politically quite powerful.”

And employability, an asset the country is strongly promoting, will need to be improved as numbers grow. “We have to get better at university and business relationships,” commented Jenny Lambert, director of Employment Education & Training at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Despite the clear challenges facing the sector, Ziguras said he’s optimistic. “I think we can do it. The major risk is an economic downturn, rising unemployment and that we would see something similar to what’s happening in the UK where there may be a restriction on work rights for students or a removal of post study work rights.”

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