The report notes that international student education is “highly valued as a core component of the mission of the sector and continues to be a significant source of revenue for Australian universities”, in addition to being a “crucial element of Australia’s soft diplomacy, regional prosperity and development”.
It states that the Review sees international education “less as an industry” than a diplomacy, prosperity and development boost, meaning that education quality provided is “even more important”.
Five immediate outcomes from the interim report is the creation of up to 20 new Regional University Centres – backed by an additional $34.4 million – which are designed to increase access for students in regional and remote areas.
Other priorities are the success rate of disadvantaged students, funding for all First Nations students, as well as financial “certainty” by extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025 to avoid “unnecessary disruption”, and actions to improve university governance.
Much of the international aspects are included in the latter “more exploratory part” of the document, which sets out initial views. Conclusions will follow further consultations, the paper notes.
A funding shakeup may be needed, as the document acknowledges infrastructure, workforce development and research is not sustainably funded, with generating income beyond government funding vital.
Some universities are “over-reliant on international students and their revenue”, it says, but the benefits and risks of educating international students is “uneven across the sector”.
Referring to government statistics, the paper says the volatility of international enrolments and income streams “threatens to undermine the stability of some institutions, and their ability to maintain research capability and quality”.
All but three of Australia’s universities – Sydney, Melbourne and UNSW – saw international student fee revenue funding decline from 2020 to 2021, figures have shown.
“The volatile nature of international student revenue is now a risk to our national research effort”
“The growth of international student revenue has become so important to the sector that its volatile nature is now a risk to our national research effort. Relying on funding core research capability and functions from volatile revenue sources has inherent risks and variability,” it says.
Endowments, high international rankings attracting larger numbers of international students and valuable property holdings at some institutions can help to maintain finances, but many are finding themselves in “precarious financial positions”.
“A rethink of how university operations are financed is urgently needed to better provide stability and maintain sustainability of the sector,” the review contends.
It suggests that an international student fee income levy could be introduced as a mechanism to provide insurance against future economic or policy shocks, or fund priorities such as infrastructure and research.
It continues to say that the current situation provides funding that is “so great it cannot realistically be replaced by public sources”.
Skilled migrants will continue to play an important role in addressing skills needs. Extended post-study work rights for graduates with specific skills from July 1 will address critical skills shortage and also contribute to a broader network of international connections.
The Migration Review outline has set out policies such as providing faster pathways to permanent residence but the paper states that industry attitudes towards “hiring international students and graduates requires significant attention”.
In a chapter on fostering international engagement, the paper emphasises that global economy shocks, political fragmentation and new alliances have “increased uncertainty”.
“[The Review] heard that higher education providers and governments need to consolidate past successes and adapt to evolving student expectations, national and international labour market needs, and approaches to overseas collaboration,” it continues.
International research collaboration continues to be an area that deepens Australia’s engagement and influence on the global stage as international partners work to meet common goals.
However growth in international research collaboration has not led to significant research funding from international sources. In the Indo-Pacific region, there is “increasing opportunity for further engagement” as countries invest more in R&D and building partnerships.
Education is key in the Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040, and governmental engagement in forums such as the Group of Twenty, Pacific Economic Cooperation and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, among others, “helps Australia to maintain its reputation as a world-class destination for high-quality education and research”.
It is also considering how to improve student experience in an international education market that is “increasingly competitive”.
Pressures international students can face in Australia include social isolation, financial hardship, workplace exploitation, as well as discrimination and unwelcoming attitudes.
While the Assurance Protocol between the Department of Home Affairs and the Fair Work Ombudsman provides a safety mechanism for students or employees to raise issues of workplace exploitation without the risk of visa cancellation, authorities are examining whether enhanced support is required.
Diversifying both international student markets and modes of delivery will “achieve sustainable international education growth and protect Australia’s future interests”.
Online and offshore transnational education offerings present an opportunity to access different cohorts of students in new and existing markets from a wider range of locations and demographics.
International student growth must be sustainable rather than be incentivised to maximise the intake of international students and produce large student cohorts, the paper suggests.
By the end of 2023, international student enrolments have recovered to near pre-pandemic levels, when international higher education enrolments hit 440,824.
“Large class sizes potentially diminish students’ ability to connect with their peers”
“[Large cohorts] can be detrimental to the student experience for both international and domestic students, with large class sizes potentially diminishing students’ ability to connect with their peers and make lasting relationships throughout their studies,” it says.
Higher education institutions must consider community perceptions of large international cohorts, while offering greater professional development of staff and cross-cultural competency in teaching and learning. They should also explore greater engagement with services such as accommodation and social support.
It also added that improvements to language testing and admissions benchmarks could be considered to “protect high-quality education experiences for all students and Australia’s education reputation and provide adequately tailored support where required”.
Areas of policy that the review will continue to weigh up ahead of the release of the final report in December 2023 include ensuring that international education supports broader Australian foreign policy objectives and making international education “more embedded” in the mission of the Australian tertiary education system.
Government also wants to improve overseas skills and qualification recognition further, as it did with the Indian government earlier this year, and build closer connections between institutions and international alumni.
Canberra is also considering establishing a second national university for the regions, which would better attract international students outside the major metropolitan areas, while also providing “substantial and lasting support for underrepresented cohorts and deliver for skills needs in the regions”.