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Australia: Albanese gov’t looks to repair reputation damage

Restoring Australia’s reputation as a welcoming destination for international students is an absolute key in ensuring not only the sector’s rebound, but also making sure that the nation safeguards its economic and geo-political future, experts have opined.

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"We are looking at having consultations with a number of federal ministers on how we can identify and ratchet up the most appropriate migration settings"

Member of parliament in the ruling Labor government and long-time advocate for international education, Julian Hill, has said that there is reputation damage to be repaired.

“You have got to be honest, we’ve got significant reputation damage to repair from the previous government’s mishandling of the sector,” he said, sharing his thoughts on the latest podcast from international education consultancy, The Lygon Group.

“The government’s actions have ongoing impact — it’s a word of mouth sector and international students talk to their friends and family.”

Enhancing the social license and building favourable community attitudes for the international education sector had been grossly “undermined” over the last few years, with the embedding of “silly stereotypes” in relation to international students, he continued.

“I hope that through mutual goodwill, we can find ways to work together productively”

“The way we treated international students during the pandemic, left a lot to be desired,” he said, adding there are “policy hangovers” that need to be resolved in the effort to restore the sector’s reputation.

Hill also said that there was a need to restore the trust in the Australia-China bilateral relationship, as it was a critical one for Australia.

“International education is a sector where there is so much mutual benefit for both Australia and China. China’s our largest source of international students. I hope that through mutual goodwill, we can find ways to work together productively, notwithstanding the ongoing tensions in the geo-political relationship.”

Recent signs by the Chinese government that they would like the students to come back to Australia were “welcome”, he said.

Speaking to a large gathering of eminent delegates at this month’s Universities Australia conference, Gareth Evans, distinguished honorary professor at the Australian National University and former foreign minister said that Australian universities can play a hugely important role in projecting the country’s soft power and in restoring trust.

Australia’s universities need to be “extremely conscious of the need to press the government to adopt a balanced and sensible approach towards handling of relationships that matter most”, he suggested.

“We have to acknowledge that the future very much lies within our own region.

“I would hope that universities, with their public policy outreach role and their role in training and supporting students, would be very conscious of the need to develop a much more balanced relationship with countries such as China, India, Indonesia and other countries of the [Asia-Pacific] region, that are going to be critical catchments in the future on a continuing basis for us and are going to offer important opportunities for research collaboration and so on.

“We also have to be much more focused on the critical role that the universities can play [in the field of] humanities and the broad based education about the history and the background of our region and our place in it. I think we have a lot of ground to make up in that respect,” Evans highlighted, while stressing the need for Australian universities to bridge the gap in the overall perception of the country internationally and within Asia-Pacific.

Hill added that Australia’s new government understands the significance and important role of international education in contributing to the country’s “soft power and geo-strategic interests”. It is something the sector must continue to contribute to immensely, over the coming decades, he noted.

“As the international education community, we want to see a two-way flow of students so that our domestic students better understand the issues their international student counterparts and peers face, and obviously it is going to be a great benefit for our region, the more our young people engage with the region,” Phil Honeywood, CEO of International Education Association of Australia, said.

Speaking with the Lygon Group, Honeywood said that going forward, some clarity from the government on mobility programs, such as Australia’s flagship New Colombo Plan would be a much welcome sight for the sector.

“If Canada can do it, we can do it too”

“We really have to return to the big Australia policy,” he said. “Corporate Australia is clearly saying that we have nearly 500,000 jobs to be filled, we cannot fill that gap with temporary workers, we need to have [permanent] migration pathways identified.

“If Canada can do it, we can do it too,” Honeywood emphasised. “Right throughout the pandemic, Canada has been providing migration pathways for international students.”

Recent research suggests that 59% of overseas students in Canada plan for permanent residency.

Honeywood mentioned that it was important to work on the migration pathways for international students.

“We are looking at having consultations with a number of federal ministers on how we can identify and ratchet up the most appropriate migration settings,” he said.

On this, Julian Hill pointed out that Australia’s international education sector employed “more Australians than the mining sector or the agriculture sector”, in terms of direct employment numbers and was the economy’s “fourth biggest” sector.

Hill lauded the setting up of the new “parliamentary friendship group for international education”, which he had co-chaired at the last parliamentary session. He said that the bi-partisan group helped build the “understanding of parliamentarians” about the international education sector.

Jeffrey Smart, the Lygon Group’s director and co-founder said that they would like to see Australia appoint an “international education champion” as a brand ambassador for the sector, on the lines of what the UK has recently done and in relation to all the positive steps that Canada has taken to strongly position its international education sector as well.

A thorough “prime ministerial statement on the importance of international education for the country” would go a long way in restoring trust and enhancing the reputation of the sector, going forward, he added.

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