Australia’s long and successful track record in international higher education has resulted from two intersecting ‘Golden Ages’ in globalisation and higher education. But these Golden Ages are now passing, both impacted by a changing geopolitical landscape. This is a key risk factor to COVID-19 recovery for Australia’s universities and is creating new realities that must be understood and managed to ensure institutional and system-wide sustainability.

Factors and trends in international education

Australia is the third largest recipient of international tertiary students worldwide, a status which has been underpinned by a series of favourable ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Australia’s lifestyle, geography, institutional reputation, and quality of teaching have attracted students from across Asia and further afield to our universities. However, both the push and pull factors are becoming increasingly subject to geopolitical uncertainty: it is time for Australia to take stock of the situation and our options.

During the higher education Golden Age, our universities became dependent on international student numbers and revenues to cross-subsidise other activities. International education directly supported growing global prestige and funded improved research performance. In turn, correlated research rankings performance further enhanced the attractiveness of Australian higher education to the growing population of international students, creating a highly successful and self-fulfilling business model.

International higher education has grown into a highly complex and sophisticated business. Australia’s universities have a multitude of arrangements including onshore, offshore, and digital provision. These arrangements cover a wide variety of courses and disciplines, with a multi-layered ecosystem of pathway providers and recruitment channels. Much of this grew organically, arising from Australia’s long-standing history in the provision of international higher education since the original Columbo Plan and the desire to leverage higher education as a tool of broader international diplomacy and trade. Coinciding with the system’s massification and reduction in per student public funding for domestic education, our system quickly became highly internationalised, with Australia’s tertiary system becoming the second most internationalised in the world.

This business model came to a sudden halt in 2020, although predictions of market downturns and failures had been rife for many years. The sector remains hopeful that it can recover the previous international student numbers, but it is impossible to predict when or to what extent international students will return to Australia’s universities.

Geopolitical trends and international education

Uncertain global dynamics are driving two central interactions between geopolitics and international education.

The first relates to how students make choices as to where they study, based upon geopolitical factors such as nationalism and populism. The imperative to study in a particular location is in a state of flux. Student flows will change as a result.

The second is ‘the innovation imperative’, which highlights how higher education is used as a tool in global competition, as the skills and knowledge acquired via international education are either retained or repatriated between competing states. ‘Knowledge is power’ in a world where nations strategically compete.

What this adds up to is a situation of great change for the Australian higher education sector that must be acknowledged and acted upon in order to retain our relative competitive position and to support institutional sustainability.

What next?

While the pandemic and the changes ahead for the Australian higher education sector are dramatic, there are a number of strategies that can be adopted to support Australian higher education in the face of geopolitical uncertainty.

Universities can:

  1. Refresh strategic risk frameworks taking into account current geopolitical risk
  2. Establish great international student experience (SX) for each target market
  3. Extend partnerships and alliances to manage geopolitical risk

Governments can:

  1. Refresh Australia’s national ‘Go to Market Strategy’
  2. Leverage international students as a key driver of economic recovery
  3. Bolster support for diversification

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