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. Geopolitical volatility is a key risk factor for Australia’s universities and is creating new risks of disruption 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 prevalent for many years. While international students are returning to Australian universities in numbers almost as high as pre-COVID levels since borders reopened in December 2021, not all institutions are benefiting equally, with research suggesting that larger, more prestigious universities are benefitting the most from students coming back.

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 university sector is recovering from the dramatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing geopolitical volatility means that the Australian higher education sector cannot become complacent. The probability of more pandemics in the future is just one of the disruptions that could affect Australian higher education in the future. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that can be adopted to support Australian higher education in the face of growing geopolitical volatility.

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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