Splash overseas fee cash back on students, Australia urged

Using international education proceeds for students’ benefit could galvanise overseas enrolments and defuse community ‘resentment’, study finds

April 23, 2022
Student running by others wearing face masks to illustrate Splash overseas fee cash back on students, Australia urged
Source: Alamy

Australian universities have been urged to use revenue from international students to improve educational programmes and services, as a way of rebuilding trust in academia and discouraging politicians from taking “shots” at the sector.

Former civil servants Ian Anderson and Robert Griew say more of the billions of dollars universities earn from foreign tuition fees should be used to “remake” the experience of both overseas and domestic students. This would help rebuild the reputation of Australian higher education after two years of Covid-19 produced “widespread feelings of anxiety, depression and alienation” among students.

It would also assist in “rewinning the trust” of people in the community – particularly parents – who assume that universities “don’t have the interests of students at heart” when they boost international enrolments. And it would help win allies for a university sector that feels increasingly friendless, particularly in political circles.

“Rather than sitting around feeling marginalised, universities could focus on winning a solid relationship with the Australian community,” said Mr Griew, a consultant who held responsibility for higher education, research and international education as a former associate secretary of the federal education department. “Politicians won’t kick you if the public like you. But if the public don’t like you, you’re there for a kicking.”

The proposal is one of several key recommendations in a report based on candid interviews with 23 government, business, education and media insiders. Professor Anderson, deputy vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, said it would be a mistake to assume that international education would rebound to the scale that had earned the sector almost A$10 billion (£5.7 billion) in 2019.

“Markets don’t have memory,” he said. “Two years is a significant break in behaviours. The students who’ll be enrolling next year won’t remember that three years previously, Australia was a great place to get an international education experience.”

Professor Anderson, a former deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, said it would also be a mistake to assume that Australian universities’ services were “sufficiently attuned” to international students’ cultural differences. “We need to be much more deliberative and thoughtful in how we engage students and prospective students,” he said.

Mr Griew said university administrators needed to take heed of a “growing resentment” among Australian families about snowballing overseas enrolments.

The study heard that local parents had little understanding that international students helped make otherwise unviable courses possible, let alone that they subsidised university facilities and provided opportunities for young Australians to broaden their horizons and rub shoulders with future regional leaders.

Instead, parents fretted about classes dominated by international students – particularly from China – who interacted only with each other and, in many people’s view, detracted from domestic students’ experience. Such worries found expression in unfair criticism of universities by politicians who were “tapping into” this resentment and overlooking the “tacit” deal whereby universities had been encouraged to subsidise their research from international education earnings.

Meanwhile, overseas students’ poor educational experience was exemplified by observations that their English skills often deteriorated in Australia “because they exist in a bubble”. Without concrete action to address such problems, Mr Griew doubted that Australia’s international enrolments would “snap back” to their pre-pandemic levels.

“Universities need a solid pivot,” he said. “It’s a perfect time to regroup, and we’re suggesting they start by thinking about the students.”


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