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Australia gears up “to reset, to rebuild, and reform”

Australia’s new minister for education has vowed to reset, rebuild, and reform the country’s higher education landscape.

"Only 16% of our international students [stay on in Australia] at the moment"

Speaking at last week’s Universities Australia Conference, the minister in the country’s newly-elected Labor government, Jason Clare, outlined his priorities for universities in his first address to university leaders.

With the new government, came “new opportunities and a chance to do things differently”, he said.

“A few weeks ago the vice chancellor of the University of Sydney, professor Mark Scott, talked about the election being an opportunity for a reset and a fresh start. And he talked about universities being in the solutions business for government.

“Mark is bang on. There is so much good we can do, working together. That’s what I want to do. And that, at its core, is what the Australian Universities Accord will be about, a reset and an opportunity to build a long-term plan for our universities.”

The accord was a key part of Labor’s manifesto, and will seek to “drive lasting reform” at universities.

“To lead this work, in the next few months I will appoint a small group of eminent Australians,” Clare told the gathering on July 6.

Acknowledging the growing need for Australian universities to deliver on the opportunities thrown up by the rise of the Asia-Pacific region, he said that, “the economic centre of gravity is no longer on the other side of the planet”.

“The businesses. The consumers. Two thirds of the world’s middle-class consumers will be on our doorstep by the end of the decade,” he said.

The products and services they will want require highly skilled workers, and an “incredibly competitive environment”, will make what Australian universities do next “so important”, he continued.

“We have got some rebuilding to do”

“Our future will be shaped more by what we do here in education, than almost anything else. And that includes what we do next with international education,” he said.

“We have got some rebuilding to do. Covid has smashed international education. Being told to go home or being left to rely on the kindness of charity also hasn’t helped.”

At the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, former prime minister Scott Morrison suggested to international students that it was “time to go home” if they were unable to support themselves.

Clare said that the process of rebuilding “starts with sending a clear message to students around the world that we want you to study with us”. Throughout the pandemic, students said they were making the choice of paying tuition or buying food with no access to financial support from the federal government. The Melbourne city council was one authority to announce a hardship fund in April 2020.

A study later that year found that three in five international students across Australia would be less likely to recommend the country as a place for study and travel as a result of their treatment during the pandemic.

The planned visit of the Indian education minister in August will “be an important opportunity to forge a relationship with him and build on the strong foundations we already have to teach and train more Indian students in Australian institutions”, Clare told HE leaders. The previous Morrison administration also signed an interim free trade agreement in April.

“We need to [forge relationships] with other countries in our region as well,” Clare noted, while he highlighted the role of international students in helping bridge national skills gaps.

“There is more we can do to get more of the students we teach and train to stay after their studies end and help us fill some of the chronic skills gaps in our economy. Only 16% of our international students do that at the moment. In some of the countries we compete with for talent it’s a lot higher than that,” Clare emphasised.

He previously suggested to Sky News Australia that encouraging international students to choose courses such as healthcare programs could be a solution to filling some gaps.

Diversification in international education is another area, he commented on, particularly around the Australian online and offshore offer.

“Now is the time for optimism and clear thinking”

John Dewar, Universities Australia chair in his address at The National Press Club, stated that now “definitely feels like the right moment for a thorough reset”.

“Now is the time for optimism and clear thinking,” he said, noting however the drop in international education export income from $40 billion pre-pandemic to $22bn currently.

“Without our universities, our economy would be sunk. Every industry would struggle to operate, especially now in the middle of a major skills crisis,” he stressed.

Meanwhile, Catriona Jackson, Universities Australia chief executive, told The PIE, that the peak body was looking forward to providing continued policy advice to government on matters of significance for the sector and towards playing its role in the reset and reform process.

“It was really nice to see that there is so much alignment between the agenda and priorities of the sector and that of the government,” Jackson said. The body will “be taking vigorous part” in the upcoming jobs and skills summit.

“We are looking at working hand in hand with the new government across all landmark policy agendas and initiatives.”

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