A fresh approach to attracting international students is needed, given the battering COVID-19 delivered.
The time has arrived for us to pioneer a new international student experience.
It is the million-dollar question facing Australia’s education sector: will international students return in droves when our country’s borders reopen, or will they be put off and study elsewhere, including at home?
Universities, vocational education and training colleges, English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) centres, and schools are battling with a second successive year without international enrolments.
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced thousands of international students bound for Australia to forgo their enrolment at our educational institutions. With international borders remaining shut, the situation has been repeated this year.
And with no clarity on what may be in store for 2022, education providers are bracing for the possibility of a third year without important and highly lucrative international student enrolments.
Industry experts say the international education sector contributed $40 billion to the Australian economy in 2019 through tuition fees paid to institutions, housing charges, entertainment costs, insurance fees and other living expenses. This spending placed the international education industry as Australia’s fourth-largest export sector.
But it is not simply the contributions of international students to the country’s coffers that have gone missing.
International educators are equally quick to point out that having international students on campus enhances the academic and social experience for domestic students by exposing them to different cultures and viewpoints.
The importance of international education to the nation as a whole – not just the university sector – should help turn leaders’ minds across all sectors to how they can again attract international students, including convincing those who have deferred their studies.
However, many believe the global headwinds faced by Australia will make this a tough ask.
For example, some education sector players claim the federal government abandoned international students when the pandemic hit. They point to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s edict that it was “time to go home” for foreign students and workers who could not support themselves here.
Others believe the fractious relationship between Australia and China may prove an impediment to luring Chinese students.
There are also those who claim Australia has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to planning and promoting the re-entry of international students, when compared to the efforts of New Zealand, Canada and Britain.
Reinvigorating Australia’s international education sector is challenging.
But allowing those challenges to obscure the opportunities is to become the architect of the international education industry’s decay.
The future holds enormous potential for Australia’s international education industry.
Foreign students will continue to regard Australia as an attractive study option, but it will take time, money, effort, patience and change for them to return.
Our relative proximity to Asia, along with easy access to visas and high-quality and well-regulated education institutions, will continue to reinforce Australia as an attractive destination.
And Western Australia’s shared time zone with large parts of Asia is an added bonus.
Also, we should not forget Australia’s ability to keep COVID-19 infection rates among the lowest in the world, which will be an important consideration for parents of international students contemplating an international study destination for their teenagers and young adults.
A recent government move to allow students to stay in Australia to live, study and work for up four years after completing their studies will be attractive for many.
However, more is needed to bring international student numbers back to pre-pandemic levels, and every university and other provider has a role to play.
Institutions that are successful in attracting foreign students will be those that put the student at the heart of their efforts.
They will be looking to offer reduced fees, re-entry scholarships or short-term fee waivers to make the Australian education experience an affordable one.
And they will aim to add value to international students by offering work experience opportunities such as internships and job shadowing, volunteering programs and extracurricular programs that directly address the development of a student’s job-ready skills.
International education remains a highly competitive business.
Our universities and all other education providers must pioneer a new-look, post-pandemic experience for international students that is far superior to what is on offer by our global competitors.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive at the Australian Institute of Management WA