Political debate about immigration in Australia appears to be following a familiar and alarmingly simplistic trajectory. As the major parties clamour for victory on this hot-button issue, their instinct seems to be to conflate complex policy areas to easily digestible sound-bytes. A complicit media, by pandering to inherent public unease about population growth and illegal boat arrivals, assists by reducing the multi-dimensional nature of this issue to crude statistics. The international education sector is but one casualty of this reductionist approach to policy debate.
In recent decades the growth in numbers of international students studying at our universities has had a profound effect on the Australian economy. Now our third biggest export earner, the international education industry employs well in excess of 230,000 people, and at its peak in 2007-2008 netted an estimated $13.7 billion. With a declining rate of government investment, our major universities have come to rely on revenue from international student fees to balance the books.
This increasingly significant industry is however facing a number of simultaneous threats. The economic realignment wrought by the global financial crisis dealt international education a savage blow. The dwindling economic fortunes of many of our major export markets have drastically reduced the number of students able to afford the cost of studying abroad. The unprecedented strength of the dollar has also made it relatively cheap for students to study in more desirable, competitor countries such as the U.S.A. Couple this with the international furore over the recent spate of attacks on Indian students, and Australia is rapidly losing its appeal as a destination for international students.
Domestically, the industry's image has also been tarnished by the collapse of a number of vocational training centres for international students. Know as "visa factories", these schools had been subjected to threadbare regulation and were seen as a revolving door to permanent residency. Unfortunately, the entire international education sector became embroiled in this controversy and despite much evidence to the contrary, there is now a broad public perception most international students coming to study in Australia are simply seeking a pathway to residency.
The political response has further crippled an already wounded industry. While our major competitors, most notably the U.S.A., have sough to stimulate growth in the sector by loosening the demands on those seeking study Visas, the Australian government, fuelled by domestic concern, has tightened requirements. Increases in Visa fees, now higher than any of our major rivals, as well as tougher financial prerequisites are making study in Australia relatively undesirable. Initially intended to respond to concern about loopholes in the Visa system, these changes have had devastating consequences across the entire industry.
The result of this perfect storm of injurious factors has been an inevitable and dramatic drop in overall student numbers coming to study in Australia. This has already resulted in significant job losses and creates a debilitating insecurity for those who continue to work on reduced hours in an unstable environment. When added to the millions of potential export dollars lost, and the resulting holes in the bottom lines of university budgets, this poses a genuine economic threat. The consequences of the collapse of the international education sector, however, will also be felt well beyond our shores.
I recently had the privilege of teaching on a preparatory course for students from developing countries who had enrolled to complete a Masters at the University of Sydney. At the graduation ceremony I fell into conversation with a medical student from Nigeria. He was intelligent, articulate and effusive in his gratitude for the opportunity he had been given. When asked what he planned to do on completing his studies, he said he intended to return to Nigeria and eradicate malaria from his homeland. This laudable goal, he insisted, would have remained a pipe dream if his aspirations had been left to languish in the Nigerian education system. While this is a single example, a viable international education industry facilitates the transfer of skills that enable students from the poorest nations on earth to fulfil big visions about what is possible for themselves and their countries.
Other benefits of international education are much more ephemeral and difficult to quantify. In my work teaching academic English skills to foreign language students at Sydney University, I have found myself facilitating a cross-cultural dialogue that expands the horizons of teacher and student alike. I have weighed the relative merits of democracy and socialism with students from China and Korea. I have seen Columbians and Saudi Arabians debate Darwin. This exposure to unfamiliar cultures, ideas and experiences results in new and creative understandings, and builds relationships that cross the boundaries of nation and creed. In an increasingly interdependent world, the value of this conversation is immeasurable.
All combatants would do well then to pause and consider the damage that may be inflicted on international education by poorly considered and reactive policy. Short term political point scoring may do terminal damage to an industry that successfully and profitably exports a renewable resource to people and nations that need it desperately.
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