Australia: Government must support our number one export

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 20 13:30:43 UTC 2007

Government must support our No. 4 export

Margaret Gardner
September 20, 2007

Recently, I went to Singapore to watch more than 1300 students graduate
with RMIT degrees, from bachelors to PhDs. Some were educated at partner
campuses in Singapore and some in Melbourne. Before me was the face of
Australia's success in international education and the reason we should be
actively planning for a changing world.

Education is Australia's fourth-largest export, at more than $10 billion a
year. The large numbers of foreign students coming to undertake their
education in Australia has been a surprising success story, surprising
because this major trade in services has been largely driven from
Australia's public universities and vocational education colleges. As a
result, government trade and industry strategies were slow to recognise
its significance. While mining, agriculture and manufacturing will
continue to be important to Australia, prosperous developed countries are
built from highly educated, highly skilled people. Australia's higher
education sector is not only the key to enabling Australia's future
prosperity, it is also a strategic export industry in its own right.

In May, there were about 285,000 international students in higher
education, vocational education and English language study in Australia.
In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Australia
is the fifth-largest destination for international students, after the US,
Britain, France and Germany.

Australia's international education has reached a stage of maturity that
requires clear aims and strategy to be articulated in government policy.

In this context, federal Education Minister Julie Bishop's address to The
Australian Financial Review' s higher education summit last April is
particularly interesting. Interesting because Bishop made only passing
reference to the internationalisation of higher education and what it
means to the economy.

She said: "The Australian community has high expectations of the
university sector in Australia and their ability to foster economic
growth." In this context, she mentioned Australia's quality assurance for
international education as an underpinning policy. Bishop spoke, as she
often does, of quality, equity, diversity and sustainability driving
Australia's education sector.

Then she added: "That is why we need a focus on a fifth pillar of higher
education policy  good governance and efficiency."

The message from government seems to be that greater efficiency and better
governance will help universities to be internationally competitive.
However, it is unlikely that this will be enough. And will that focus
strengthen Australia as a provider of education for students from across
the world?

As public institutions, universities must be subject to high levels of
accountability for the use of public funds. The education provided must be
of high quality and independently recognised as such.

Quality and public accountability are the base but not the key factors to
examine when setting government policy for international education. First,
the Government needs to be clear that it wants the university sector to be
a provider of international education. Present performance makes Australia
one of the most successful in the world and much that it does is being
emulated by other nations. Is the Government committed to this success?

The Brisbane Communique, which commits Australia to greater educational
exchange and co-operation in our region, is an important aspect of
international education but is not a statement of Australia's goals. The
Government must now state its expectations for the future. And, if
Australia is to continue to be a successful provider of education to
international students, strategy and policy for domestic and international
provision must be considered together, not separately, as occurs now.

Several Government departments and agencies, including the Department of
Education, Science and Training, the Department of Immigration and
Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, and the Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade are now on separate policy missions to police the
sector. With international education, the requirements of the Education
Services for Overseas Students Act (administered by DEST) are detailed and

For public universities and vocational educational colleges, the
regulation of international education provision involves a separate form
of quality assurance and accountability from the form that applies to
domestic fee-paying education provision, as well as being different from
the regulation of domestic government-funded education provision.

Quality is important but it cannot be assured solely by the ESOS Act, but
rather by the quality of the institutions themselves and their
international standing.

It's not reasonable in the long term to expect domestic taxpayers to
cross-subsidise the education of those from other countries beyond
Australia's national aid programs. Nor is it sustainable to expect
international students to cross-subsidise domestic provision, even though
it is reasonable that they pay the real cost of their education.

To the Government's credit, it took the first, much-needed step towards
helping rebuild the higher education sector in the 2007 budget. The Higher
Education Endowment Fund is a great initiative and the Government should
be congratulated, but these changes need a context.

Australia needs to set clear goals about what its aspirations are for
post-secondary education attainment and the related funding for domestic
education. Universities Australia's target for national investment in
research and innovation of 2 per cent of gross domestic product by 2010
and 3 per cent by 2020 is a good start.

New for-profit providers have entered a market still dominated by
not-for-profit and public institutions, making regulation more difficult
as it needs to deal with institutions driven by differing objectives and
with different frameworks for accountability.

It is time for the Government to examine the way regulation is handled in
other sectors that operate globally, such as banking, rather than continue
with an approach that inevitably leads to more detailed and more complex
regulation over time.

It is also time for government to tackle the fact that Australia is an
international education hub; that is, higher education is no longer a
matter of domestic policy. This internationalisation is a major benefit to
Australia and our region. It heightens our responsiveness to and
engagement with a global economy and it provides the basis for
understanding and relationships that are the soft diplomacy for a more
tolerant world.

Many other countries, including those in our region, are seeking to
emulate this success. They recognise the benefits of a diverse, globally
connected education sector.

Australia must cease to treat international education as an adjunct to
domestic education and produce a national policy for post-secondary
education that recognises that international education is an integral part
of the future.


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