Don’t ‘revert’ to relying on international income, Australia told

Notwithstanding their financial reliance on foreigners, universities down under must consider the ‘value proposition’ for the students

June 5, 2023
International students
Source: iStock

Australian universities must take care not to “revert back to revenue generation” as a focus of their internationalisation efforts, a Brisbane forum has heard.

Rongyu Li, deputy vice-chancellor for global engagement at the University of Queensland (UQ), conceded that the sector would probably need to rely on international earnings “in the immediate short term” to rebuild its post-Covid stocks.

“We really need to be careful not to get stuck in that space,” Mr Li told the THE Campus Live ANZ event at UQ. “Over the medium and longer term we really have to think about innovative ways of doing it, and doing it for the broader benefit rather than just revenue.

“If we don’t do [students] justice by giving them a very rewarding…experience, it’s going to backfire. When we are relying so much on that revenue stream to do a lot of other things…we really need to do some soul-searching work. What is the value proposition we’re putting on the table to keep us sustainable?”

University of Melbourne deputy vice-chancellor Michael Wesley said the sector had undergone “15 years of really quite unconstrained growth” fuelled by international recruitment. “This form of unconstrained growth just can’t continue,” Professor Wesley told the forum.

“Like a lot of other universities, we’ve started to do some thinking around…our long-term size and shape: the balance between undergraduate and postgraduate, the staff-student ratio, the mix between domestic and international students, and how we pay for it all.

“It probably marks a shift [that] we’re starting to think in a much more deliberate way…about who we educate and how we educate them and who we hire. All of those things are really on the table now.”

Gabrielle Rolan, pro vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia, said there was no sign that the “tsunami” of international students to Australia would dissipate any time soon. She said her institution was seeing new types of recruits from established markets such as India and China as well as emerging markets in Africa.

But she warned that the “headline data” did not necessarily reflect the real story, citing Nepal’s status as Australia’s top source of foreign higher education students. She said more than half were not studying higher education the following semester, and “certainly not” with the institutions that had originally recruited them.

Ms Rolan said onshore poaching was “a really complex issue to solve”, requiring government intervention to change the conditions that enabled it. “There’s a lot of churn happening at the moment,” she said.

But she also observed “exciting changes” in international education, with foreign students enrolling in areas they would not have traditionally considered, such as architecture and urban design. Overseas students were re-evaluating their life choices, much as Australians had spent Covid lockdowns learning how to make “sourdough bread”.

“Students [are] thinking about what the world looks like for them and what they want to get out of it,” Ms Rolan said.

Mr Li said cross-subsidies from international education had allowed Australian universities to invest “generously” in research, but this too needed re-evaluation. “Do we invest in everything or [only] in areas [that] build on our existing strength?” he asked.

“Individually as providers, but also collectively as a sector, we really need to have those tough conversations. I don’t think anybody has cracked the code to get out of this.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Mr Li, if you do not bring in Chinese students, you will not remain a Deputy Vice Chancellor at the university. You know it. It is sad, but true.