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International education is an economic enabler

24 September 2020

Coronavirus has affected a lot of what we do in 2020. Most of you would think, what an understatement. We can […]

Coronavirus has affected a lot of what we do in 2020. Most of you would think, what an understatement. We can all list the different ways coronavirus has touched our lives. Imagine being a student in far flung country that has their heart set on a university degree from Australia and 2020 was going to be the year that you travelled to Sydney to study engineering at University of Technology Sydney. Excitement at the start of the year, might have given way to some stress, some panic and some frustration as it became more and more clear that travelling the so many miles to Australia was just not going to be possible. You would wonder how long your dream must be put on hold for, if you missed your one chance for your dream to come true. You would wonder whether what you thought it might be like, studying in Australia will now ever live up to that dream.

Prior to the pandemic, the signs of disruption in Australia’s economy existed. There was a decline in traditional large-scale manufacturing in Australia. Australia’s reliance on internationally sourced products, particularly in health and allied health, was laid bare during the initial lockdown phase of the response to coronavirus.

Microbusinesses and start-ups developed new products or services and grew rapidly, delivering jobs in industries we’d never thought of. The way we shopped, interacted, or even something simple like visiting the doctor was delivered through new platforms which require different systems, new types of employees, and a digitally connected world.

The same disruption is being experienced in international education. A common misconception is that the disruption in international education will only be felt in Australia’s education industry. Beyond the immediate loss of income to university sector, the downturn in international education has broader implications for Australia’s economy. This is due to the interplay between international education and temporary migration and the imperative to produce skilled graduates and boost research activity to underpin Australia’s economic recovery.

International Education is Australia’s fourth largest export and in 2019 Australia was the third most popular international education destination in the world, with 7% of the global market behind the United Kingdom and the United States.[1] International education contributes significantly to other sectors, particularly tourism, hospitality and retail, both through students’ expenditure and their workforce participation.

Further highlighting the importance of attracting (or locally educating) skilled migrants, this dire forecast prompted a call from economists for new policies to attract skilled migrants when international borders open. KPMG is forecasting there will be 1.1 million fewer people in Australia by 2030 than there would have been without the pandemic. It has recommended the government consider making post-study work rights last longer, creating clearer pathways to permanent residency for international students and giving extra permanent residency points for those who work in sectors with skills shortages.[2]

Tim Winkler, Director of higher education marketing and strategy consulting at Twig Marketing poignantly said, “The Australian education narrative has failed to convince domestic students, international students or the Australian community that international education is anything more than icing on the cake. It needs to be recognised as a fundamental ingredient. Australia is a relatively small nation far from the rest of the world. We need to engage with other citizens to get access to ideas, trade and opportunities to build a better life. Global scholarship and networks should be enshrined as the cornerstone of the Australian education value proposition.”[3]

The pandemic has brought our future challenges into focus and made the task of changing the way we live and work more urgent. Australia’s international education industry needs to better communicate to Government, and the public, why our fourth largest export needs support in this challenging time. Industries that rely in part on international education are needed as champions of this cause.

The economic settings Australia is currently faced with at the start of the recovery phase, such as high levels of unemployment and under-employment and high levels of government debt, all lead to the same place: innovative and collaborative solutions through partnerships between governments, business and education providers. These will ensure that Australian workers don’t get left behind in the recovery.

Partnerships between Government, business and education providers will ensure that solutions to the changes brought on by this pandemic are just for all workers. Change is not beyond enterprising Australian workers and our political, business and university leaders, we are living with it and driving it already. There have been a multitude of examples of innovation in how Australian universities have adapted to the challenge of international education delivery during the pandemic. We need to ensure that support is also provided to the sectors under pressure from the impact of coronavirus like tourism, like hospitality.

Education has always been the great enabler and driver – and it will continue to be long into the future.

The ATN Universities International Education Summit is held via online broadcast Monday 21 September and Wednesday 23 September between 12 noon and 2pm daily.

Mr Iain Watt is Deputy Vice Chancellor (International) at University of Technology Sydney.

[1] http://uis.unesco.org/en/uis-student-flow

[2] https://home.kpmg/au/en/home/media/press-releases/2020/08/increased-international-student-intake-would-boost-economy-covid19-aftermath-20-august-2020.html

[3] https://www.ieaa.org.au/blog/recipes-for-hope-post-covid-19-for-the-education-sector