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Why Australian politicians are divided on return of international students

Six months ago, University World News published my article, “Could Australia be the student mobility comeback kid?”, where I gave a very upbeat assessment of the prospects for Australia’s inbound international student recruitment. But the only way you can be a comeback kid is to get off the canvas when you’ve been knocked to the floor. At the moment, Australia is looking like it is down and out for the full count.

There were warning signs as far back as April 2020, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a press conference: “If they [international students] are not in a position to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries.”

He may have framed their contribution to the economy and society as it being “lovely to have visitors to Australia in good times”, but it seemed reasonable to believe that a country where 30% of the population was born overseas would see the benefits of global mobility.

In 2018 the Guardian newspaper was even reporting Morrison, then treasurer of the Liberal-National coalition government, as “stressing the economic benefits of a programme heavily skewed towards skilled migration”.

More recently and radically, a piece by Professor Greg Craven, who retired as vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University in January, suggested: “There should also be an overarching national strategy that dictates overall intake and controls the proportion of students coming from different countries and in different courses.”

It’s worth remembering that Professor Craven also called the Group of Eight universities elitist and said they were behaving like “homicidal aliens” which just wanted other universities “to die”.

But the possibility of Australia’s government taking such direct control of higher education enrolment seems dangerous, authoritarian and a step backwards in a globally mobile world.

Then there is the recent suggestion in the headline of an article that “Migration is a quick fix for skills shortages. Building on Australians’ skills is better.” This is based on the specious argument that Australia can somehow fill its skills shortage through education of its population.

This rhetoric seems extraordinary from a nation which, in addition to its rich indigenous culture, has been built on skilled immigration throughout its history. Even the article goes on to note that in most areas there is every reason to welcome workers born overseas in every sector of the economy.

Turning its back on history

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have all recognised the need for migrant workers. The roles span from seasonal activity, like fruit picking, to key workers (in health etc) and highly skilled permanent workers in growth industries.

For Australia to be turning its back on the rest of the world and ignoring the talent that has helped create it and that can be part of rebuilding prosperity after the pandemic seems wholly counter-intuitive.

Globally, mobile students are a litmus test for the government because they score on all categories of making the country wealthier.

They provide the short-term economic return of over AU$37 billion (US$28.5 billion) to the economy and are vital to the local economies and communities in which they live and work while they study.

They also fill in some temporary, unskilled roles alongside their study, but most importantly they create the bedrock of skilled and committed workers who are looking for routes to make Australia their home.

But right now, thousands of international students who have paid their fees are stuck at home and it is estimated that three in five students who were previously thinking of studying in Australia are considering studying elsewhere.

It is no surprise that Professor Simon Marginson told Times Higher Education: “If the pandemic is over by the end of 2021, international enrolments will recover significantly in 2022 in Australia, but it will take five years or more for Australia to recover the 2019 enrolment, and it will take longer to recover market share…

“In fact, Australia may not recover market share in the longer run.”

In 2018 Professor Marginson was saying that “Australia was poised to overtake Britain as the second most popular global destination for international students in 2019”.

Mutual recriminations

Colleagues and friends in the United Kingdom and Canada are expressing disbelief that a country with such a proud tradition of international recruitment should be so openly divided on the next steps.

Watching the mutual recriminations between central government, regional government and the education sector is a source of wonderment that cannot quite mask an underlying sadness at Australia’s calamity.

The Australian higher education community has long been a welcome source of dynamism, innovation and creativity in the sector and life is not the same when they aren’t at the party.

In recent years they have been among the pioneers of diversification and, despite the fact that they are still heavily reliant on China, they have been the first to forge a bridgehead into the emerging markets of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region and South Asia.

During the pandemic they have pioneered the ‘pop up’ campus in Asia to allow students stranded in their home countries to engage with peers and have done all they can to focus on the student experience for those stranded thousands of miles from campus.

It’s also worth remembering that the model pioneered by Navitas has spawned several global pathway businesses employing thousands of people, recruiting hundreds of thousands of students and making millions in revenue for universities.

The lack of political will to open borders to international students suggests that it will be relegated to the second division of countries considered by international students for the foreseeable future.

The Nobel laureate and immunologist Professor Peter Doherty recently reflected that the pandemic restructuring in some Australian universities risked the country becoming the “bogans of the Pacific”.

It is surely no mistake that the word has a long-standing meaning as a “backwater”, but more recently is Australian slang for an unsophisticated person whose speech, clothing, attitude and behaviour exemplify a lack of manners and education.

It is doubly regrettable because Australia’s world-leading universities have substantial opportunities to be part of and benefit from the growing economic power of Asia.

That prospect is perhaps one of the reasons the country has been invited to attend, along with India and South Korea, this year’s Group of Seven Leaders’ Summit in June. It is an invitation that may never be repeated if an isolationist Australia turns its back on international students and loses its position of authority, attraction and soft power in the Asian Century.

Louise Nicol is director of the Asia Careers Group.

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