Australia Day Honours – where are the IE champions and heroes?

Consider people in the international education industry who have changed Australia through their influence on educational, social and political activity.

No doubt readers are aware of the annual kerfuffle about Australia Day, the date, the appropriateness of celebrations and the gender imbalance. One of the better comments heard on ABC radio on Australia Day morning was that we shouldn’t change the date, we should change Australia. Simple, painless (in principle) and inclusive.

How might we do this? Perhaps by reflecting on how Australia has already changed and appreciating the agents of that change. The Australian Day awards are one way to start. Here, we recognise the tremendous contributions of Australians across communities, across areas of work, the arts, sport, research, in public service and so on. These are often contentious. Why, when eleven of the eighteen Council for the Order of Australia members are women, are 72.5 percent of honours awardees men? We could debate endlessly here. We could examine the endeavours and individuals awarded, the range of geographic locations represented, the citations and the complex award process. And we could take a look at the people we know who are yet to be recognised; those in international education who have helped change Australia.

The past 25 years have seen an enormous change in education, specifically the boom in international student enrolments. After full fees for overseas students allowed education providers to launch their targeted recruitment activities in the early 1990s, international student enrolments have grown from under 90,000 in 1994 to almost 700,000 in 2018. Commercialisation of education has changed the face of our cities, the way we plan and develop educational services, infrastructure, and professional roles. This has not been by accident, but by enterprise, audacity, imagination, and courage, through wobbles, worries, and near disasters averted.

Rapid and significant growth has put educational providers at risk of overdependence on the lucrative flow of students into Australian institutions; it will require high-order thinking and prudent investment to maintain balance in this highly successful multicultural project. Who are the champions who can achieve this? Further, issues of student safety, employability, health and wellbeing are current hot topics, but have always been front of mind for student-facing professionals whose innovation and commitment over decades have held so much together. Who are the heroes managing student crises and connecting students to communities across the country every day? These change agents are rarely acknowledged or awarded. Why is this, when their contributions, individual and collective, have been momentous?

International education may continue to look inward and be risk-averse, but we might do well to consider for nomination those people in the industry who have changed Australia through their influence on educational, social and political activity. Many pioneers of international education in Australia have devoted more than a generation of continuous service. Let us hope future Australia Day awards will reflect those champions and heroes, especially the women, who are still invisible.


Paula’s Thesis: ‘Bringing the World to Melbourne: Transnationalism, Agency and Contributions of International Students to Making a City, 2000-2010 (University of Queensland, 2016) examines the changes international students have made to the City of Melbourne.