Australia’s international education sector is “now showing signs of a strong recovery, which is incredibly welcomed”, says Julian Hill MP.
“The students who are desperate to start their onshore study, as well as the institutions and providers who want to welcome them back, are looking forward to it. So that’s a good thing,” the former executive director for International Education in the Victorian government says, speaking to The PIE on the margins of the Australian International Education Conference 2022.
As the Labor Party member of parliament for Bruce, Hill suggests that the latest downturn was “of course a combination of the global pandemic and unavoidable issues”, but also lays blame with “policy neglect and inexplicable hostility” by former prime minister Scott Morrison.
Morrison infamously, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, told international students that the pandemic meant it was “time to go home”.
It is a repeated charge from Hill, who wrote in The PIE in early 2020 that the former prime minister’s “tone-deaf comments… inflicted enormous gratuitous damage on Australia’s reputation”.
“We are now focused on working with the sector to recover our market position”
“To be very clear the new government of Australia values international education and wants to welcome students back so that they can receive the benefits of a terrific quality education in Australia, with a great student experience, whether they are studying in the big cities or in regional areas which offer an incredible student experience,” he now posits.
The handling of the pandemic by the previous government hurt the sector and advantaged Australia’s competitors — “that’s just a fact”, Hill says.
“We are now focused on working with the sector to recover our market position — but, first and foremost, to welcome students back to the terrific Australian experience,” he highlights.
“At any given point in time, whether you are talking five or 10 years ago [or now], it is a highly competitive global market where students have choice, and we’ve always said that Australia should welcome and value the fact that students choose to spend some of their most precious formative years in our country, travelling, getting to know the country – and many of them decide to stay and settle down here,” Hill notes.
“We should value the contribution that students make to Australia,” Hill reiterates, including pathways to permanent residency. “One of the great privileges of being a member of parliament in Australia at the federal level is that you get be a part of citizenship ceremonies,” he says.
Trump’s America or Theresa May’s UK also made “mistakes and hurt their [own] sectors”, but ultimately the policy settings in Australia around different aspects related to the sector and on issues of visas or migration “must always be made in Australia’s national interest”.
“Doing the best we can for students is a part of that,” he continues.
“We cannot devise our policies based solely on what other countries are doing, but of course we need to keep an eye on what others are doing and how we are shaping up and where we can continue to innovate and compete,” Hill notes.
But the number one priority should be quality. “We’ve got to make sure that we continue to offer high quality education to globally competitive levels.” That, in addition to “a great student experience”.
Shedding light on the highly significant parliamentary group of friendship for international education, which he heads, Hill tells The PIE that the group was set up with a two fold focus.
Number one — “to be a conduit between the MPs who are interested in and support international education and international students in Australia” and second — “of being a forum for dialogue” for the providers and students of the sector and helping “build an understanding and literacy amongst parliamentarians, of international education and international student issues”.
“It is an incredibly dynamic, vibrant, and complex sector, and a friendship group is a great way for that two-way exchange to occur, and importantly to signal bipartisan, cross-party support,” he emphasises.
“Support for international education is not only a matter for the government or for the opposition… there are so many members of parliament, right across parliament from all parties, who support international students and the vibrancy this sector brings to our country.”
He also points to Australia’s global university rankings, which help to make the country a “sought after destination”, particularly among highly accomplished professionals looking for the best career outcomes.
“There are so few cities in the world which have two universities in the top 100, Melbourne has two universities in the top 50,” Hill points out.
Hill also posits that diversification needs to be thought about “more broadly”.
“It’s not just diversification in terms of countries and students, but also in terms of modes of delivery… so more Australian institutions partnering with and delivering offshore in other countries and taking their high-quality education [offering] outside Australia, as well as diversification in the places in which students study — in regional areas as well as cities,” he highlights.
Last year’s Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 said it aims to “capitalise on digital and offshore opportunities”.
With India and China being the two largest student source markets, Hill says that it is a matter of “pure mathematics” that more number of international students would come from these two countries than others, as they each have “more than a billion people” and also fall within a similar time zone as Australia. And, this should not be a “surprising fact” at all.
The Australia-India relationship is an “enormous top line priority” for the new government – elected in May – and the country’s minister for education hopes to further “deepen” the partnership. Point in case is Australia welcoming India’s minister for education in August.
“Minister Pradhan was very clear that the Indian government wants to open the door for more partnership and more quality providers, such as those in Australia, to help with the Indian government’s goals of accelerating the skilling and education of India, particularly given the youthful demography that modern India is blessed with.
“We want to deepen our education partnership in all ways”
“Minister Clare has indicated that he will, in return, be visiting India, next year, and so we want to deepen our education partnership in all ways — to welcome students here for a high-quality onshore experience, as well as to work with India for our providers to deliver in-country, and also for more research collaboration on shared challenges and industry training partnerships right across the board,” Hill details.
“Australia is blessed that our fastest growing group of migrants is the migrants from India. Indian migration is transforming Australian culture… beyond the old stereotypes of Commonwealth, curry, and cricket. To that we can now add culture, as well as our increasingly deepening economic and strategic partnership.”
On the road to recovery of the sector, post pandemic, Hill says that he is very “optimistic” that the sector will continue to recover and offer an attractive proposition to prospective students. Hill says that the sector should keep and build on some of the innovations that it has had adopt in the midst of the pandemic, particularly in terms of online and offshore delivery and flexible study options.
Hill concludes with a message to the sector.
“Be proud of Australia’s international education offering. It’s high quality and is valued by hundreds of thousands of students across the world. Be confident about the trajectory that we are on. And, be relieved that we now have a new government, that wants to talk up the sector and support it.”