Globalisation and higher education – the ephemeral dream

Australia’s return to sustained economic growth is highly dependent on our exports. Pre-COVID-19, education was Australia’s third largest export earner, driving a $40b+ direct economic contribution underpinning the permanent migration that made for a diverse and prosperous nation. The recovery of the international student market is therefore critical to Australia’s economic recovery.

While our immediate attention has been placed on the importance of vaccines and open borders, we also need to be cognisant of underlying and growing geopolitical risks impacting our key markets. Governments, universities and citizens alike should be interested in how this can be managed, as we are all likely to be impacted.

In a post COVID-19 world, we may well see nationalism and popularism combine with the innovation imperative to significantly slow the demand for an Australian education.

In our new report, Geopolitics and the Australian Higher Education Sector Time to do More Homework, we examine the factors that led to the remarkable success story of internationalisation in our higher education system and those that are now threatening the recovery of that success. We argue that the idea that education can be a great leveller and creator of social and international mobility is losing cache.

Pre-COVID-19 Australia was the third largest recipient of international tertiary students worldwide, a status which has been underpinned by a series of favourable ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Unmet need in international markets and the clear positional advantage could be derived from a foreign education created demand. Australia’s lifestyle, geography, institutional reputation, and quality of teaching attracted students from across Asia and further afield. 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.

International education is inextricably linked to globalisation, which at its heart has the idea that we are all better off in a global co-operative community in which trade, aid and collaboration come together.

But in recent years, nationalism and popularism have been on the rise, as a sense of local and global inequalities, unfairness and disillusionment have become increasingly apparent. This is resulting in the weakening of international institutions and diminished trust in the ideal of international co-operation. Globalisation itself created a demand for international cosmopolitans, those who have genuine cross-cultural mindsets and capabilities, or in other words, a demand for international education.

We know that political power has been shifting from the West to the East, as part of the ‘Asian Century’ for some years now. Nation-states around the world are caught up in this dynamic. As countries face increasing global competition, many are seizing the opportunity of uncertainty to advance their own position. Attracting and keeping top international students and talent is becoming a strategic tool for state competitiveness. As we race into the 4th Industrial Revolution, the ‘innovation imperative’, in which technological progress contributes to a state’s rise, or imposes constraints, is becoming increasingly important. Skills and capabilities are an increasingly critical commodity.

COVID-19 has not helped of course, as nation-states have contracted into themselves and questioned the increasingly obvious downsides of large-scale international concourse. Before COVID-19 however it was already clear that the golden age of wellbeing and wealth for all that globalisation was expected to deliver is increasingly seen as an ephemeral dream.

Now students (and their parents) are questioning both the feasibility and desirability of studying overseas as both costs and downsides have risen. An international education is hugely expensive and has obvious downsides in terms of disruption to families and the local networks that facilitate graduate employment. Domestic provision is also getting stronger in many of our traditional source countries as they too seek to retain and import talent.

In the near term, students and parents are likely to demand new products and services, become more price conscious, and require clearer return on investment. Achieving graduate employment and career success are the most critical factors in achieving return on investment, effort and disruption.

Nationally, our universities can best respond by genuinely understanding and responding to geopolitical risk. They can achieve competitive advantage by driving the student experience agenda and diversifying how they deliver international education through local partnerships and digital channels.

National and state government need to lean into this risk too, supporting a refreshed ‘go to market strategy’, understanding how international students can contribute to lasting economic recovery, and bolstering support for source country and channel diversification.

The next ten years will be tougher than the last ten. We will all need to face into new realities. This will necessitate a deeper conversation about the critical role international students have played in Australia’s social and economic prosperity and the extent to which we want this to continue.

This op-ed first appeared in The Australian.

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