“There are so many other elements that sit alongside the economic one,” explained Helen Forbes-Mewett research leader of Identity and Belonging at the Monash University Migration and Inclusion Centre.

“We cant deny the economic one, it is extremely important, but then so are all the other elements.”

Additional benefits include cultural perspectives and the creation of international connections, she posited.

“There is really an imbalance on the appreciation of the sector beyond the economic value”

“There is really an imbalance on the appreciation of the sector beyond the economic value that we have to rethink,” said Belle Lim, national president at the Council of International Students Australia.

“Significant cultural contributions” are not regularly talked about or appreciated enough, she continued, while economic benefits are often misperceived as only benefiting universities or the education sector.

“Apart from international education, I cannot really think about a way or a channel that can inject such a large number of high skilled workers and individuals into Australia that really power the productivity growth,” she added.

“International education employs five times the number of workers as coal mining, but you don’t see members of politics or community vehemently defend a sector… like those [that receive] massive subsidies.”

“We need to see students as being much more than just an economic contribution,” agreed Wesa Chau CEO of Cultural Intelligence and founder of Resilience Against Racism.

“I would be controversial to say, people don’t even treat them as customers. If you see [international students] as customers, you would provide them with the support… but we don’t even do that very well.”

Australia’s approach to international students has “shifted dramatically” in the decades since students first arrived under the Colombo plan for cultural and diplomatic reasons, Forbes-Mewett noted.

“Then it became very economic. I think there is probably a need to shift back somewhere more in between in a sense.”

The pandemic has been a wake up call that the role of the international education sector needs a rethink, Lim suggested.

“I agree that the sector, over time, it seems like the most important or only role is to bring in revenue to Australia, and in fact that is not the most important role I would argue.

“There is a very important role to educate and train the future leaders of the workforce for Australia and the rest of the world. We come from so many different countries. There is a very important part that Australia is playing in the leadership role of the Asia Pacific region in this sense.”

There are still questions over how quickly the Australian sector will bounce back in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“They have already gone to other countries like the UK and Canada”

“I would say that Australia’s reputation has been hit quite badly. I know there are a lot of students who are starting university around this time, they were coming to Australia but Australia is no longer an option for them,” Lim stated.

“They have already gone to other countries like the UK and Canada, and they have been seen as a lot more welcoming to international students… International students coming back to Australia is not going to be a V-shape recovery, it’s going to take a long time.”

Surveys have indicated that agents had “all but written off” travel to Australia and New Zealand in 2021, with students turning to the US, Canada and the UK.

However, students can see a “bigger picture”, Forbes-Mewett contended.

“Where we are geographically placed, we are a good place to be, we are generally a safe place to be, and I think all of that is weighed up against other options, I think at the moment some student may be thinking they will go somewhere else, but as soon as we make it possible to bring those students back, I think they will come back,” she said.

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