Australian Higher Education Grapples With the Rise of Asia

October 04, 2012

The future of Australian higher education wholly depends on staying relevant and competitive as global economic power shifts to Asia.That inextricable link between Asia and Australia was the main theme of the Australian International Education Conference, which attracted about 1,200 delegates here this week from some 40 countries.

Speakers challenged universities, vocational institutions, and the nation to move beyond the aggressive recruitment strategies that have seen Australia achieve the world's highest international-student concentration, or risk losing their edge. Australia's reputation has suffered in recent years as those tactics have increasingly been seen as predatory. Instead, experts said, the nation must treat Asian countries as potential partners.

"The quality of the policy decisions we make now will determine whether we succeed or fail in capturing the tremendous opportunity that the emerging middle class in Asia is offering us," Jason Yat-sen Li, a business-development leader who works in China and Australia, said at the opening plenary session.

To that end, the Australian government recently commissioned a much-anticipated white paper on Australia's role in the "Asian century," which will offer a road map for the country as it pursues deeper economic and strategic connections in Asia. With the paper's release expected imminently, international-education advocates seized the moment to underscore the sector's value—beyond its $15-billion contribution to the Australian economy.

"We have the potential to lead Australia's engagement with Asia," Stephen Connelly, president of the International Education Association of Australia, told The Chronicle. "That's the challenge to the sector—can we step up to the mark?"

A 'Border Mentality'

Through scholarships, research partnerships, and other linkages, Australian universities have engaged for decades with their counterparts in China, India, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia, among other Asian nations.

Mr. Connelly said that experience could help transform Australia into the sustainable, knowledge-based society it needs to become.

However, in a recurring theme at the conference, speakers said Australian society was simply unready for deeper relationships with Asia—a challenge to the goal described by Mr. Connelly.

Broader social realities, such as a national debate over the rights of asylum seekers and news-media imagery that portrays Australia as an Anglo-Saxon country, are hurting Australia by portraying it as a racist nation, said Mr. Connelly.

"The impression in China is that investment in Australia is not welcome, and we still give the impression as a country that we have a border mentality," he said. "Neither of those things plays well to an Asian audience. I think as a country we have a long way to go in learning how to engage with Asia."

The United States poses another threat to Australia's dominance in the Asian international-student market, said another prominent speaker, Sean Gallagher, chief operating officer of the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney.

He noted a sharp increase in Chinese students' flocking to American universities even as the number of Chinese students is declining in Australia.

Additionally, he said, Australian institutions depend on international students to balance their budgets. "In terms of dollars, even though we only have one in four students from overseas in Australia, the income we get from that is equal to the income we get from domestic students," he said. "So [export education] is now very much the dominant model [in Australia], and therefore any threat to it is very, very serious."

Overhaul Needed

In contrast to other speakers who said Australian universities were poised to grow, Mr. Gallagher said international education here had reached its limit unless it overhauled its approach and offerings.

"If we're going to protect the business model that underwrites everything [Australian universities] do, we have to compete on quality, and we have to compete in Asia," he said. "The alternative is we'll be forced down-market."

Mr. Connelly, by contrast, said he was much more worried about the impact of Australia's new student-visa system and a continuing problem surrounding foreign students' opportunities to work after graduation.

Under the new visa system, the onus for determining the "genuineness" of international-student applicants—that they are not seeking to immigrate illegally to Australia—has moved from immigration officials to university staff.

Students are equally concerned about their ability to stay and work in Australia after they graduate. A survey by Melbourne's Deakin University, presented at the conference, found that 75 percent of international students did not feel confident that they would be able to find a job in Australia after completing their degrees.

"We are looking at the factors that create this mismatch between the outcome of the university and the demand for skills in the [Australian] market," said Mohammad Ali Rahimi, a doctoral student at Deakin who conducted the survey.