International education had become the quintessential Magic Pudding that not only kept regrowing no matter how much we feasted on it, but became bigger every year! At least, until Covid-19 put it into the freezer!
There has, of course, been much wringing of hands over the sudden starvation our education institutions and exports have suffered from losing the sustenance they were dependent on. Yet, not much concern has been expressed by governments or the media about the loss of the Magic Pudding’s most nutritious ingredient – the students themselves.
Undervaluing overseas students reflects a mindset that goes back to the Colombo Plan. Launched in 1951, there is no denying the benefits of the Plan to its scholars and their newly-independent countries, nor the generosity of Australia and other donor countries. However, the underlying sentiment of the program was the ‘white man’s burden’, as clearly expressed in the official description of it as a “cooperative venture for the economic and social advancement of the peoples of South and Southeast Asia” (https://colombo-plan.org/history/).
To ensure the scholars understood our intent, we required them to return home following their studies, saying, “Your countries need you more than we do”. Mind you, there was also the White Australia Policy!
Although non-white migrants are now welcome, our condescending attitude that we are helping foreign students by educating them lingers. The reality today, of course, is very different. Our objectives now are commercial, not philanthropic. The students are our customers, and we depend on their custom. In 2018, for example, they contributed 26.2% of the revenues of all our universities and substantial fees to our VET, school and other education providers too. In addition, the money they spent on living and other expenses during their student years was 38% of the total tourism spend in Australia and 57% of travel exports. We also earned billions from the 300,000 of their families and friends who visited Australia.
However, apart from money, overseas students also give us huge value as workers. Our frontline services, including health, disability and home care, retail, hospitality, tutoring, research, IT and more increasingly rely on their services.
Additionally, they continue to keep giving us value even after they complete their studies. If they return home, they can be influential honorary Australian ambassadors, supporting business links between our countries and promoting Australian education and tourism. But the biggest dividend we get is from those who choose to remain here permanently and become Australians. They make ideal citizens because, apart from having Australian qualifications and work experience, they are:
· Young, with a long productive life ahead of them.
· Highly likely to be successful here, having made an informed decision to stay after experiencing life in Australia.
· Hardworking, competitive and aspirational, but also willing to do whatever work is available, whether highly skilled or menial.
Given the nourishment the Magic Pudding of international students provides, we should bring it out of the freezer as soon as possible by:
· Making sure financial hardship due to the pandemic doesn’t force students already here to return home. We should include them and their employers in the JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs; encourage owners of empty units to lower their rents and even defer fees through HECS-like loans.
· Helping those stranded overseas to return by arranging additional airline seats, stopping price gouging by carriers and making quarantine accommodation free.
· Reconnecting with the thousands of applicants who were in the pipeline when Covid-19 struck, treating them as invaluable would-be customers. We should assure them that they will be most welcome as soon as travel from their countries becomes safe, which would already seem to be the case with Singapore, Korea, Japan and even China. Accelerated visa approval, lower visa charges, arrangement of charter flights with cheaper fares and rent and fee assistance are other measures worth taking.
If the economic Hanrahans start wailing, “We’ll all be rooned!” by the cost of these stimulatory measures, we should remind them that the opportunity costs of having our education institutions, residences and other parts of the economy underutilised are substantially greater and would last longer. As Simon Marginson, the globally renowned Oxford professor on global education has cautioned, we could be “probably looking at a five to 10-year period before Australia will go back to the half a million students coming in every year” (The Pie News 1-10-2020).
To help the Magic Pudding return to its former size speedily will be challenging. The reality is that international education is intensely competitive, and we should not pretend that we are the first choice of prospective students. To quote Marginson again, Australia is “not quite as prestigious as the US and the UK in terms of the English language countries”.
Our biggest competitive advantage is the prospect of permanent residence and citizenship in Australia. Thanks to our prosperity, safety, stability, multicultural society, equable climate and proximity to Asia, home for most of our international students, we are unquestionably a very attractive migration destination. The opportunity of living here is our biggest competitive advantage – the trump card we should play to win the battle for the world’s best and brightest. It’s the ingredient of the Magic Pudding that most whets the appetite of overseas students!
Of course, marketing alone will not be enough. We must start thinking of and treating foreign students as valuable customers and potential Australians from the recruitment process onwards. We should keep in regular touch with applicants before they leave home and throughout their student years; we should meet and greet them on arrival; we should continually assure those acquiring skills we seek under our migration program that we will smooth their path to permanent residence and citizenship. Such positive actions will ensure that the International Education Magic Pudding doesn’t just replenish itself but keeps getting larger and more nourishing for our education industry, our student customers and Australia!