Perth and Shanghai have developed dramatically in recent decades, and former premier Colin Barnett says a strong relationship between WA and China has enabled the state’s success.
International education is a $1.9 billion industry for WA, and there are plenty of innovative ideas about how to build the sector.
Large investments to attract bright minds and a sharpened focus on collaboration show Western Australians have high ambitions for engagement in the region as an education destination.
“We’ve done a lot in the past 18 months, two years, to position the state far better than it has been,” Mr Jones told Business News.
“All of the educational institutions have come together in a way I haven’t seen in 25 years.
“Everyone is going at it with the right spirit … there’s a lot of optimism.”
Mr Jones took the role as chair in February 2018, with the government also announcing a $2 million funding injection, which was followed up with another $4.5 million in May 2019.
“There’s never really been support for international education by any government,” he said.
Mr Jones said Premier Mark McGowan had recognised the sector’s value, and led the charge.
But he acknowledged a drop in student numbers in the past two years.
The big impediment to a strong student inflow had been the state government’s 2017 change to remove Perth as a region in the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme, Mr Jones said.
That move was reversed in recent weeks, meaning students will now again be eligible for an additional year in Australia on a post-study work visa.
International student commencements had fallen by 11 per cent to just more than 16,000 in the three years to June 2019.
Perth Airport chief executive Kevin Brown said he welcomed the policy change because WA would be disadvantaged without the ability to provide work experience.
International students bring more to the state than just their fees, Mr Brown said.
Kevin Brown says international students are a big driver of visitors to WA. Photo: Attila Csaszar
“These students are excellent advocates of the destination, their families come to visit, their friends come to visit them,” he said.
“For every international student, there is the equivalent of four airline seats (sold annually).”
University of Western Australia deputy vice chancellor Tayyeb Shah agreed the migration change would make WA more attractive as a student destination, although he said UWA had not been affected as much as others.
UWA’s international student revenue grew about 56 per cent to $150 million in the three years to 2018, the strongest growth of any public university in WA.
But Mr Shah, who was lured to Perth from King’s College London earlier this year, said his strategy would be broader than just bringing in students.
Instead, he would look to build reciprocal partnerships.
The focus would be in the Indian Ocean area, where Mr Shah said UWA had a strategic advantage, and particularly on research collaborations with foreign institutions, which were generally weighted higher on academic indices.
“We’re (also) looking at how we get our students out there, through the Colombo Plan … and similarly looking at ways we can work with industry to develop collaborative PhDs, internship opportunities,” he said.
“We’ve got a prime opportunity to forge excellent links with India, countries in East Africa, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia.”
The New Colombo Plan is a federal government initiative to support Australian students studying at institutions around the Indo-Pacific region, designed to boost cultural competency.
Incoming researchers and students from overseas also benefited the university community as a whole, Mr Shah said.
“Those students form a network for the university overseas, and benefit local students by building their international understanding through classroom diversity,” he said.
One idea under consideration was to partner with a South African university and a major miner to deliver a program where students spend time on both continents.
Mr Shah said WA could do more to explore the potential of its sister-state relationships, which include East Java in Indonesia and Andhra Pradesh in India.
Those regions would be a good place to start when working with foreign institutions and industries, he said.
East Java provides a good case in point.
Local universities are collaborating through the WA East Java Consortium to bring Indonesian students to Perth to visit all five campuses, adding to existing tours operated by individual universities.
Students at Curtin University. Photo: Attila Csaszar
Curtin University, which was the top international student revenue earner in WA in 2018 at $159 million, has tried a couple of quirky programs.
In July, Curtin named a scholarship after the host of Chinese dating show If You Are the One – the Meng Fei Innovative Future Leader Scholarship, scoring publicity on Chinese social and mainstream media.
The university has built links through offering professorships to famous entrepreneurs such as fashion maestro Jimmy Choo and venture capitalist Bill Tai, while leveraging the successes of former graduates such as John Lo, an executive of Chinese technology business Tencent.
Perhaps the biggest move to build WA’s educational engagement was the development of the Forrest Fellowships.
The program was created by a $65 million donation in 2014 from Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation.
Attracting bright researchers to WA has big benefits for the community.
Copenhagen-born fellow Frederik Seersholm is studying the impact of climate change and human activity on biodiversity at Curtin’s Ancient DNA lab.
At Murdoch University, Seattle-born Karissa Lear is studying how climate change is affecting local freshwater sawfish.
Giovanni Polverino is at UWA, collaborating with New York University, developing robotic fish that protect Australian species from others that have been introduced to the ecosystem.
The teams are training an artificial intelligence program enabling the robot fish to differentiate between local species and invaders, with the robots built to look like predators of the invasive species.
Dr Polverino said WA was a perfect place to research invasive species because the local ecosystem was unique and so well preserved.
A recent report by consultancy QS shined a light on what drives Asian students in choosing a university, with cost, availability of scholarships, and measurements of quality such as rankings, prime factors.
When picking a destination city, about 47 per cent of responders in Beijing said safety was the top determinant, as did 42 per cent in Jakarta.
The survey said parents and education agents were highly influential in decisions.
About 75 per cent of international enrolments across Australia’s education sector come through agents, according to federal government research.
UWA masters student Hazel Tan’s story highlights some of these factors.
“I wanted to study something related to life sciences,” Ms Tan said.
“The agent suggested Australia because there’s a lot of research and a lot of niche majors not available in Asia.”
Hazel Tan. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira
In life sciences fields, UWA ranks 31st for human biological sciences on the Academic Ranking of World Universities.
Overall, UWA ranks 99th in the world, with Curtin in the 201-300 bracket, and Murdoch and Edith Cowan University between 701 and 800, meaning all are in the top 10 per cent globally.
But there were other big selling points for Ms Tan, who studied a Bachelor of Science and is now working on a Masters in Physiology.
One was the campus, one of Australia’s oldest.
“It’s very different where I come from (Singapore),” Ms Tan said.
“Its city and high skyline … here I see so much sky.”
Perth’s steady pace of life gave more time to focus on studying, she said.
And there was a level of influence from her dad, who studied at Curtin, although Ms Tan said her parents had been shocked how much the city had developed when they visited recently.
William William picked up a scholarship from the Indonesian government to study a Masters of Strategic Communication at UWA.
Mr William said he chose the university because of the quality and proximity to Asia.
“The teaching method, I find it’s a good room and opportunity for discussion with the lecturer,” he said.
“The distances between the lecturer and the students are not that wide, unlike some Asian countries, here we’re quite equal.”
That meant students could more easily speak their minds, which he said would be a major draw card for his compatriots, who valued the freedom and relaxed attitude in Australia.
Perth was also a good place to start a family or raise children.
“It’s about the environment, something I can feel and experience every day,” he said.
The data backs Mr William up.
Earlier this year, the Life in Australia survey by Ipsos found that inner Perth was the most livable metropolitan region in the country.
The tertiary education sector is embracing this, with accommodation developments in Northbridge such as Campus Perth and The Boulevard.
Eva Chye, who specialises in international services trade at a major professional services firm, originally came to Perth as an international student from Singapore.
Ms Chye said her father had also studied in WA, and the natural environment, safety and pace of life were attractors.
“When students come to Australia for a serious study experience, Perth is just the right balance of city life and quietness, less distraction,” she said.
The other benefit of a moderate size was that international students were encouraged to interact with locals in a way that was less common in really big cohorts on the east coast, Ms Chye said.
But she said WA would need to step up on this front to match jurisdictions such as the United States, where local students usually move cities and stay with international students in residential colleges, making integration easier.
Recent moves towards group assignments would also support integration, Ms Chye said.