The warning came during the opening panel of the PIE Live Australia conference in Brisbane on July 24.
University of Newcastle Deputy Vice-Chancellor Kent Anderson, who chaired the panel, said that with the global health crisis looming in early 2020, public sentiment towards the sector was “neutral”.
“I don’t think it was positive or negative because I don’t think it affected most people,” he told the audience.
“For a larger Australian company, [international education] he was neither here nor there. I wish we could go back to being positive.”
With a series of federal reviews such as the Migration Review, the University Accord and the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade, there is a “pressure” on international education, English Australia chief executive Brett Blacker continued.
“I still think as an industry we have failed to really represent our value within the Australian population,” he said.
He praised the IEAA, which recently launched a national marketing campaign to tackle the issue, but added that the industry could become “almost a victim of our own success” after the Covid rebound.
“I see the impacts that are coming, particularly in the federal government on student numbers, is that international students are seen as a housing problem and a rental crisis, even though we’re not back to the level of 2019 when we weren’t at a crisis level,” he described.
“We all need to try to change the narrative about international students”
A recent report by a conservative think tank in Australia calculated that international students are expected to “take up” an average of almost 55% of net new accommodation across the country this financial year.
The sector needs to come together, specifically within the English language component, which he described as an “easy target”, Blacker added.
“We all need to try to change the narrative about international students, the value they place on English language skills, because it’s a really easy target for the government to point to English language standards as a quasi-indicator of poor quality.”
“In fact, we’ve been improving year by year in our academic performance,” Blacker continued.
As the government seeks to adapt and change policies affecting the international education sector, “we need to be at the forefront and work with the government on what constitutes a real student,” he added.
“I think it’s a collective failure that we are able to spread the good news to students. I know good news doesn’t sell news, but we’re advocates for this story.”
Asked if the sector had been allowed to “overheat a bit” in the face of the pandemic, managing director of commercial business at Victoria-based TAFE provider The Gordon, Jan Perera, acknowledged Blacker’s comments were relevant given Australia’s skills shortage.
The vocational education system is a “great foundation” for students coming to Australia, she said.
“The employment rate is really high for students who have completed vocational programs. We need people in sectors like aged care, nursing and hospitality, they are crying out for workers, which is exactly what the vocational training system is all about,” explained Perera.
The federal government has “of course recognised” the added value of vocational education and training, as well as the higher education sector, to fill the skills gap, she continued. The Job Skills Australia initiative – announced in November 2022 – is proof of that, she suggested.
In addition to the contributions of international students to Australia, the panelists emphasized the importance of meeting their expectations.
Described by panel chair Anderson as the “biggest bouncer” from the pandemic and showing “phenomenal” growth from 2022, Torrens University was ranked best as a result of its online-first access.
“We couldn’t prepare for Covid, no one could,” said Rob McGowan, Vice President of International at Torrens University. But with 20% of students exclusively online and another 80% learning in a hybrid environment, the institution found a niche in the market in 2019.
“We found ourselves pretty well poised for dramatic change with this innovation that we entered in 2020 with the… university we built [had] no dependence on one audience or one delivery model,” he said.
“We have an obligation to students to focus on their career readiness from day one and to make it embedded in the curriculum so that it is not optional but mandatory for students. By mandating this, we are ensuring that there are graduate attributes that Torrens students will take into the market, which will then support that transition.”
From a New Zealand perspective, Ainslie Moore, Associate Director of International Affairs at the University of Auckland, noted that “if we don’t set them up for employment success in their home country, then we’re not delivering”.
“We have to think about what their choices are, what we’re teaching them and why the skills we give them will be useful in their home country.”