Diversification, skills need and competitiveness at heart of Australia strategy

The diversification laid out in the Connected, Creative and Caring plan includes both diversifying student cohorts and source countries as well as growing education offerings to “capitalise on digital and offshore opportunities”.

To meet the country’s skills needs the government will improve education providers’ understanding of Australia’s future skills needs and expand opportunities for non-Australian Qualifications Framework courses to be delivered offshore.

In addition, it will cooperate with the sector to build research and collaboration capability to ensure Australia “continues to be an attractive, secure and trusted international research collaboration partner”.

Strengthening connections between international students and Australian students and communities, enhancing people-to-people links through international education mobility and focusing on student experience and wellbeing are also prioritised in the document.

“An optimal make-up of international student cohorts also enhances the learning experience of Australian students”

The government has said it will work to enhance students’ awareness of rights and responsibilities while living, working and studying in Australia, and support the capability of all providers to deliver student support programs. To do so it will work with the sector and state and territory governments, and maintain Council for International Education representation to ensure international students continue to inform relevant policies.

The strategy notes that the past 20 months have been “extremely challenging” for the sector, and points to overall student satisfaction dropping among onshore undergraduate students in 2020.

Included in the strategy are visa setting changes announced on November 25, along side a $37m financial package to support the sector.

Among the adjustments is permanently increasing the length of temporary graduate visas from two to three years for masters by coursework students, as well as temporarily increasing VET graduate visas from 18 to 24 months and removing the requirement for a qualification assessment and occupation nomination from the skilled occupation lists for 2022-23 financial year.

Additionally, temporary graduate visa holders, who lost time due to pandemic travel restrictions, will be permitted to reapply for replacement visas.

In October, The PIE revealed that the government was considering introducing visa reforms.

The government said the new visa settings will help to maintain competitiveness, and when promoting the Australian education offer globally it will “focus on attributes that set us apart from competitors”.

Work with domestic and international stakeholders will “strengthen the recognition of Australian qualifications to secure further study and employment opportunities for all students that study with Australia”, it added.

Writing in the strategy, minister for Education and Youth and chair of Council for International Education, Alan Tudge, said he is “optimistic about the rebound of the sector” following the announcement of borders reopening to fully vaccinated international students from December 1.

Diversification of international student cohorts is important as concentration on a small number of countries “presents significant financial risk to individual providers and to the sector more broadly”, he noted.

In 2020, the top five source countries accounted for 72% of international enrolments at Australian universities – up from around 60% in 2010, the document noted. Competitor markets including the US, the UK and Canada are all looking to diversify to support sustainable growth in international education enrolments, it added.

While key partner countries such as India and China remain valued partners, the government is committed to working with the sector to identify “optimal” diversification strategies.

“Importantly, an optimal make-up of international student cohorts also enhances the learning experience of Australian students, a key objective of international education,” Tudge added.

“Through increasing the diversity of courses in which international students enrol, there are opportunities for a stronger alignment between international education and Australian skills needs.”

Transnational education has the potential to reach larger cohorts of learners than the traditional model of intensive onshore education, the strategy noted, and the government will seek to grow its “relatively small” online international education footprint.

“It is timely to capitalise on these [Covid-19] learnings and growth in digital offerings to position Australian education to cohorts of young people who are coming of age in an increasingly digital environment and have familiarity and appetite with digital service delivery,” the document read.

A 40% drop in overall international commencements compared with pre-pandemic levels poses “very serious challenges” for universities and their ability to play the fullest part in national recovery, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said.

The strategy shows that the federal government has acknowledged the contribution of international education, and its role in recovery from the pandemic, she continued.

“To complement the impending return of international students from December 1, universities were pleased to see positive announcements on student visa settings, enabling them to re-apply for temporary graduate visas or extend their length of stay from two to three years,” Jackson said.

“Long term vision is important”

“Long term vision is important, and we look forward to discussing how the government proposes to implement the strategy in conjunction with the sector over the next decade.”

Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia noted that independent higher education and vocational training providers had “been walloped in the past 18 months”.

“The release of the new strategy could not have come at a better time,” said chief executive Troy Williams.

Independent higher education and vocational training providers recognise that the dependence on a small number of markets for overseas students is not sustainable, Williams added.

“Not only are they looking at new markets such as Latin America, they are also looking at new ways to support students. A growing number of ITECA members are progressing new business models that will see them open campuses in off-short markets, an approach that allows them to support a significant number of students.”

The strategy – which government launched a consultation on earlier this year – received over 120 written submissions, with 1,600+ individuals participating in consultation process webinars and workshops.

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