There is a compelling case for the higher education sector to embrace a broader conception of international education.
With Australia’s borders open and the once lucrative international education industry showing signs of a return, those in higher education have been keenly tracking the number of overseas students coming into the country.
Yet, there is another side to universities’ globalisation efforts that appears to have dropped off the radar: Australian students who move overseas to study.
Ask any expert about the value of international education in higher education and they will be quick to point out that, far too often, we focus solely on the financial impact of overseas students coming to Australia.
International education, the experts will tell you, is much more than the number of international student visas processed by the Australian government to permit the completion of an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification in this country.
At the very least, it is about the delivery of courses that make use of global expertise, case studies and examples.
It’s also about the educational partnerships and networks that institutions and their students forge worldwide and the value derived from the mobility of Australian students.
Before the pandemic began in 2020, steady progress was being made by Australian universities to balance the scales between inbound international students and outbound Australian students.
Pre-pandemic, Australian students had many opportunities to learn overseas even if take-up rates were modest.
Depending on what was being studied and where, there were opportunities for Australian students to participate in faculty-led study tours overseas, attend summer or winter programs at overseas universities or spend a semester or more completing classes at a host international institution.
Increasingly, too, Australian students could access international experiences through studying in Australian branch campuses overseas.
As a case in point, Curtin University has established branch campuses in Malaysia, Dubai, Singapore and Mauritius.
Those campuses not only serve the educational needs of students in those countries wishing to pursue an Australian degree without travelling abroad but also offer great potential for Curtin’s domestic students who want to learn overseas without having to change to another university.
According to data compiled in 2019 by the Australian Universities International Directors Forum, 58,000 students from 34 institutions participated in a universitylinked learning experience that took them outside Australia.
Previous annual AUIDF surveys have demonstrated the slowly growing popularity of learning-abroad initiatives among Australian students.
In 2015, 14 per cent of graduating students participated in learning-abroad initiatives, rising to 19 per cent by 2019. Then COVID struck and Australia’s borders were closed.
There is no AUIDF data to depict the situation post-2019 though it is highly likely that even with international borders reopening, Australian students are staying home for now.
Today, as the Australian university sector takes steps to return to global education, higher education leaders must take learning abroad to the next level for locally enrolled students.
While attracting international students will continue to be important, equal attention must be given to globalising the learning experience of domestic students through a renewed but more prominent focus on learning-abroad opportunities.
Despite the steady pre-pandemic rise in interest among Australian students to study overseas, their enthusiasm greatly lagged that exhibited by their peers across Europe and in the US.
The hesitancy is partly because we invest far more resources in recruiting international students to Australia than we do promoting, encouraging and supporting domestic students to learn offshore.
Learning overseas is often life changing and can provide benefits for the individual, the country and the international community.
It has become clear students who have studied abroad are better able to work with people from other countries, an important outcome in an era when global political tensions are rising.
And with many businesses wanting to penetrate lucrative international markets, companies employing graduates with global experience are likely to be better served.
There are compelling reasons for the Australian higher education sector to embrace a broader conception of international education. It will result in a focus on attracting inbound international students at the same time as encouraging outbound learning for our own students.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA