Catriona Jackson, Universities Australia Chief Executive
Much has been made recently of the role international students play in our migration mix. Contrary to the opinion of some, these wonderfully talented and ethnically diverse people are not responsible for the nation’s housing mess or the strain on other vital infrastructure.
It is unfair to place the blame squarely at their feet because the housing crisis is not a new issue. Housing has been the Achilles heel of successive governments for decades. Policies have lagged our growing population for a long time. International students are not the cause.
There are also the obvious and residual consequences of COVID-19. Workforce shortages and supply issues fuelled by the pandemic continue to act as a handbrake on our construction sector, slowing the building of new homes.
We must stop using international students as scapegoats for what is clearly a bigger policy problem. We are bigger than that.
To that end, it was good to see that Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil did not deploy the blunt policy instrument of a cap on international student places in the government’s new migration strategy. But universities remain wary that the government has not entirely ruled out this course of action.
Going down this path would ignore the very real and significant contribution international students make to our nation. It would undo decades of careful and strategic work by our universities to give Australia a competitive edge in the global battle for skills and knowledge. This is critical in the context of the skills shortages crippling large parts of the economy.
The position of strength we hold has seen education grow to become the biggest export we don’t dig out of the ground. Each year, it adds tens of billions of dollars to the economy, helping pay for essential services and underpinning a higher and more sustainable standard of living for all Australians.
We educate students from over 140 countries, and we do it well, which is why we are one of the world’s leading providers of international education. Right now, we have around 750,000 international students studying in Australia – the majority coming from countries like China, India and Nepal. These countries, like Australia, understand that a highly educated, working age population is key to economic strength.
Beyond the numbers, education makes us friends. It acts as a bridge between nations and supports regional stability which is only becoming more important in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment.
There is also the role of research – Australian researchers working with their international peers to tackle global challenges such as the energy transition and pandemics, to shore up our food and water security, and to develop new technologies crucial to national and regional security. Our government, and those around the world, are reliant on universities for this work.
Much of the recent conversation around international students and migration has largely ignored the very real benefits international education brings. It has also failed to recognise that changes to policy settings – no matter how politically popular on the day – can put all of this at risk.
Universities have welcomed government action to strengthen the integrity of our international education sector, to ensure we are attracting students with genuine ambition to study. We also support measures in the migration strategy to attract researchers to our universities and keep more international graduates here, using their Australian education in Australia.
But we need to ensure that any changes to our international education policy settings, now or in the future, are weighed carefully against the enormous benefits for which the sector is responsible. We must also recognise that changes in the international landscape in the coming decades will present both challenges and opportunities for universities and that government support for the role our institutions play internationally is just as important as the role they play domestically.
In the next three decades, countries like India, Nepal and China will continue to rely heavily on Australia to educate their people, but projected changes to the global population mix mean we will need to engage with new partners in the coming decades to sustain education as a major export industry. There is huge potential in Africa and southeast Asia, where many countries will soon have a massive demand for higher education.
There is a global shift in populations of working age people, and the provision of the education they need and deserve must also shift. Australia can and should have a role in educating people across the globe, off the back of a mature and nation-enhancing system we have already established.
We must also ensure we are thinking about the broader benefits of international education and the significant role it plays in diplomacy and regional development. That is, universities’ role in actively shaping global responses to global problems.
The engagement our institutions have with partners across the region and the world – through research or otherwise – to advance relationships and bilateral priorities needs to be understood and valued. Indeed, any future international education strategy needs to clearly articulate and define education’s clear purpose in diplomacy and maintaining the mutual understanding that underpins our place as a responsible, mature middle power.
The recent conversation around migration has served as a reminder that international education can become targeted in narrow political debates. It is too important for that.
Universities are all about good policy, not politics. Leave us out of the political debate of the day and let’s focus on the very real and tangible role international education plays in our nation’s economic growth, in driving social cohesion and in supporting geopolitical security. Now is not the time to rock the foundations of a system that serves Australia’s interests on multiple fronts.