On 30 April 2016, then Minister for International Education and Training Richard Colbeck, released a long-term roadmap known as the National Strategy for International Education 2025 to drive the international education sector for the ensuing decade.
The strategy was first circulated as a draft a year earlier in April 2015, in order to gain feedback from international education stakeholders (Australian Government, 2015). The aim of the strategy, as Minister Colbeck notes, is to strengthen and solidify international education as ‘one of the five super growth sectors contributing to Australia’s transition from a resources-based to a modern services economy’ and to ‘ensure Australia remains a leader in the provision of education services to overseas students’ (Australian Government, v). In addition, the strategy points to the ongoing benefits from this sector in terms of the bridges it builds between Australia and the rest of the world. It particularly highlights the collaborative ventures Australia has with the rest of the world because of international education through research, trade, investment and social engagement. One of the most significant recommendations was to increase international student numbers from the current half a million to 990,000 by 2025.
While the strategy generally acknowledges the significance of international education and international students to the economy and to the future of Australia’s engagement with Asia — the region where the majority of current international students come from – it does not acknowledge nor discuss the impacts that increasing numbers of students have on institutions and on the wider community.
Challenges for universities and other education providers
While the strategy acknowledges the value international students add to Australia, it failed to acknowledge the potential impact on institutions. The strategy basically maps out the benefits of expanding the international education sector by providing strategies for attracting international students to Australia. However, it fails to offer a single proposal for how institutions could be supported to meet increasing numbers of diverse students on their campuses. Instead, the strategy says that the government will leave it to institutions to:
“…make their own decisions about academic offerings and modes of delivery, universities are already exploring the opportunities and challenges of faster delivery platforms.”
This is a not-so-subtle hint towards more blended types of learning, which generally combine face-to-face teaching with online teaching.
While there is nothing wrong with increasing the international student intake from non-traditional regions – which adds richness to the diversity of the student body – institutions will need to put in place measures to support their staff in intercultural competency. One international student is not like the next. Institutions cannot assume that international students from Latin America or the Middle East are (culturally) the same as international students from China or India. Institutions need to support staff to negotiate through classrooms – real or virtual – which would become increasingly multicultural. They also need to encourage and support staff in creating courses that allow for this diversity to shine through. Here, using real-world examples from the regions and countries the students come from would enhance the learning experience.
International students offer Australia boundless opportunities economically and culturally. However, we have to be able to offer them a worthwhile experience and opportunity in return. Universities and other providers ill-equipped to deal with the number and diversity of international students won’t be able to provide international students the rich experience they’re offering us.
Adapted from Gomes, C. 2017. ‘Casting the Net Wider: Coping with an increasingly an international student body in Australia’. Quality Assurance in Asia-Pacific Universities: Implementing Massification in Higher Education, edited by D.E. Neubauer and C. Gomes, Palgrave Macmillan and Gomes, C. 2015. ‘International student report emphasises their value, but not the means.’ The Conversation, 1 April.