Deborah Knight: Catriona Jackson is the Chief Executive of Universities Australia – she’s on the line for us now. Catriona, what was your reaction to this? It was very sudden.
Catriona Jackson: G’day, Deb. You’ve made it sound quite challenging. This actually is a good thing. This day was always going to come. The Chinese Government made a change at the very start of COVID to allow online learning. Overseas students are not allowed usually to do their whole degree online. So, this is not a shock. Obviously, we’ve got to move really quickly and we’ll be working with government and with agencies to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to get it in place by the start of the semester. You’re right, it isn’t just high school and primary school kids going back today, it’s university in about a month’s time, so we’ve got to move really fast. Sixty thousand Chinese students have already come back, 40,000 still to come as well as another 40, 000 from the other 144 countries around the globe we draw students from. We knew the day was coming. We’ve got to work fast. We will do so.
Deborah Knight: But you didn’t expect it to be the start of semester one?
Catriona Jackson: We hadn’t ruled out the start of semester one. I’m not a betting woman, but if you’d asked me to bet last week, I might have said slightly closer to semester two, but it’s getting the students back here where they want to be, in classrooms with their Australian friends is something they wanted, something we want, something that’s good for our multicultural nation, and good for our economy. We’ve got to move fast, a bit quicker than you might have expected, but in sum, it’s a good thing.
Deborah Knight: How many Chinese students though do you think will have to defer perhaps the start of this semester with their studies because they won’t be able to overcome those challenges because the visas, the flights, the accommodation, just juggling their lives, getting everything sorted in time for the start? You’re saying you’ll move heaven and earth to make it happen, but do you expect that you might see some students from China having to defer?
Catriona Jackson: We’ll try and make that number as small as we possibly can, Deb, because we know that’s not a good outcome for any student. We are hoping for some flexibility from the Chinese Government. If you actually read the rules in their announcement, it seems there will be some flexibility around people who just can’t get here in time. We’ll be arguing for more flexibility so that we can treat those students absolutely fairly and give them the best experience here we can and make exceptions where it is fair to make exceptions for students who just can’t get back to Australia by the very start of semester one.
Deborah Knight: We know why you’ll move heaven and earth because they do make up a large proportion, as you say, of the international students and, to put it bluntly, the international students are what makes the world go around for the universities. They pay the way, you rely on them financially.
Catriona Jackson: It’s good for university finances and good for university research because a significant amount of university research is funded partially by international students, but it’s also really good for the Australian economy – $40 billion every year onto the Australian bottom line from international students. That’s good for them, it’s good for us, also the visitor economy with families who come to visit. It makes up a really substantial part, our largest services export, something that is valuable in a whole range of cultural ways, but also economically for all Australians.
Deborah Knight: What’s happening with online learning in the broader space? Because, obviously, during COVID, it wasn’t just students from China who had to, if they were enrolled in Australian universities, do the online learning. We know that for local students, we had to as well, and by and large, there was a trend to do a bit more of the online learning prior to COVID. How much of a proportion is face-to-face and online now for Australian universities?
Catriona Jackson: Didn’t we learn an enormous amount about online during that period? I never would’ve assumed that my kids would be sitting in their rooms doing their classes online, and everyone had that experience. It’s moving so fast. It’s really hard to say what proportion is absolutely online and what proportion is face-to-face. Certainly, we learned an enormous amount about online during the period. Universities have really accelerated their online offerings, made them richer, deeper and better. There will be more online and more deep and rich online as we go forward. But at the same time, the one great big message, I’m sure you’ve heard this from your listeners, Deb, the one great big message we got, especially from international students but from the Australian students as well, was they wanted to be back in the classroom sitting next to their colleagues, being able to have face-to-face conversations, face-to-face tutorials and seminars, those really rich learning experiences, and as soon as possible. Universities right now are doing everything they can to get as much back face-to-face while mixing with a good, rich, hybrid experience as well.
Deborah Knight: What’s the difference between good and bad online? Isn’t it just online?
Catriona Jackson: We’ve learnt a lot about how you do online. It’s not just pushing the play on a video tape in a lecture. It’s really good interactive stuff. I’m not sure if you’ve seen some of the models, but all sorts of questions being posed, chat rooms with students involved. It’s not just a lecture at you, it’s a really interactive experience. Some universities in Australia, say, for example, Swinburne have been doing online for a really long time and have really serious expertise, and very generously shared that expertise during the COVID period. I think we’ve absolutely upped our game on online so that it’s a rich experience, the kind of experience that our kids expect. I might have accepted a videotaped or recorded lecture. They absolutely wouldn’t. They’re so much more sophisticated on this stuff. The offerings are getting up to that level where they’re acceptable for all kids who absolutely expect that their online experience will be as rich almost as face-to-face.
Deborah Knight: Is the Chinese Government right in saying that online learning is not as good as learning in-person?
Catriona Jackson: I think it really depends on circumstances. I certainly wouldn’t say that as a broad statement. Online is appropriate in particular circumstances, face-to-face is terrific also in particular circumstances. There are a really large number of students in our universities today who are mature age students, so it isn’t like when I was at university where almost everyone was 17, maybe 25, there are lots of people who are raising kids, running a household, holding down a job at the same time of studying. So, for them, a rich online study option is a really, really good one.
Deborah Knight: And look, the other side of the coin, and I mentioned this at the outset too, the challenge that we have here in Australia at the moment with finding rental, and we’ve talked about this on the show extensively last week and heard a lot of examples of people really struggling to find a rental property, where are you going to put these Chinese students? It’s hard enough as it is for Australians in the country to find somewhere to rent and we know that even on campus accommodation, the huge challenges that we’re facing, completely oversubscribed, the amount of people who want to get on campus accommodation versus the amount of bids. Where are you going to put all these extra students coming from China?
Catriona Jackson: This is certainly one of the logistical challenges. There have been lots of conversations with accommodation providers in the lead up to this point. Again, we knew this day was coming. For the last couple of years, big accommodation providers have been working out what to do with all the empty beds. They’ve now got a solution for that.
Deborah Knight: [inaudible] rental crisis. The crunch has certainly come much greater than we expected.
Catriona Jackson: I don’t want to underestimate the challenges. What universities are doing now, what we can do is make sure that our students are as aware as they can be of the full range of options. Not just university accommodation, but a home share, all sorts of other options. We will certainly have to work hard and quickly with accommodation providers, with government to make sure that there is the largest amount of accommodation available and quality accommodation available for those students. I’m not underestimating the challenges, especially in big urban centres like Sydney.
Deborah Knight: There’s a lot to achieve, as you say, before the start of the semester and hopefully moving heaven and earth it’ll happen for the universities. Catriona, thanks for joining us.
Catriona Jackson: Thank you.