Yet another review has landed on desks around Canberra. A newly released 160-page Productivity Commission paper on International Education Services has underlined what many of us who work in this dynamic sector already know.
Not only is international education kicking goals for our beleaguered economy but it continues to enhance Australia’s global credentials. Notwithstanding this, the report also warns this $17 billion a year industry that more regulatory reform might be required if Australia is to remain the study destination of choice.
Up front, the Productivity Commission’s report is very much a good news story. It finds that our nation’s third-largest export creates 130,000 equivalent full-time jobs. These jobs are not just in teaching but cut across the entire economy, including the provision of accommodation, food, entertainment and even tourism.
There are more than 450,000 full-tuition, fee-paying international students in Australia now, accounting for 20 per cent of all students enrolled in our higher education institutions and 5 per cent in vocational education and training (VET). Importantly for our future relations in our region, about three-quarters of all international students come from Asia, with China and India the biggest markets.
Of equal importance, the report noted that we have another 160,000 enrolments in Australian courses delivered offshore, with an increasing number of these in the advanced skills (VET) sector. Overall, our international education industry has recovered from recent years of declining enrolments and the commission concludes that it “is back on a high-growth trajectory”.
So where is the flip side to all this good news? The Productivity Commission points to four key areas of concern. These relate to governance, student visa integrity, comparative quality course ratings and the complex issue of education agent quality assurance.
International education has come a long way, in a short space of time, since each state and territory government had separate regulatory authorities. Until the federal government intervened, each state had jurisdictional oversight of student and education provider policy and procedures. These were replaced in 2011 by the Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) for higher education and the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) for vocational education. Despite initial teething problems, these two national regulators have made significant improvements in the good governance of a complex industry.
It is therefore surprising that the Productivity Commission raises the possibility that these two regulators be merged into one entity. Some education institutions, which deliver both higher education and VET courses, would welcome any ensuing reduction in their regulatory reporting burden. However, because each of these national regulators primarily service very different types of education providers and courses, there is little momentum among international education stakeholders for such a merger to be effected.
Control of who is deemed to be a genuine temporary student and student visas has long been vested in our Immigration Department. In recent years this has been justified because of border control concerns.
Yet the Productivity Commission boldly suggests that other factors and government departments should have a stake in the outcomes here. Whereas the Immigration Department’s almost entire focus is on the immigration risk of an education provider, the commission questions the merits of this. Instead, they would like to see factors such as the quality of the education provider’s course delivery, their financial or consumer risk and even student graduation outcomes factored into the visa-issuing process.
Industry groups, such as the International Education Association of Australia, have long argued for just such a comprehensive student visa issuance model. Currently, it is all too easy for certain education providers to tailor their immigration risk rating just long enough to qualify for special visa status. They might be delivering the worst business course in Australia, but that is not being factored into the equation.
The third related area of concern identified in the report is the lack of transparency on the ratings of course quality. This is supported by a recent global survey of 45,000 international students by Hobsons Education Solutions. It highlighted that course rankings now come ahead of education institutions’ overall quality and the choice of country as the key driver of enrolments.
Happily, something is being done about this in Australia. The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) online platform will be released soon by Education Minister Christopher Pyne. QILT will incorporate student experience, graduate outcomes and employer satisfaction surveys into one easily accessible portal.
There has been a great deal of media interest recently in the complex relationships between education agents and education institutions. Unfortunately, none of this public commentary has mentioned that the federal Education Department is awaiting a report that it has commissioned on this very issue. The report is due by the end of June and more than 1000 key stakeholders have been surveyed already and separate education provider and agent focus groups have been held around the country.
The Productivity Commission report has provided yet one more set of recommendations to a sector that is already suffering from review fatigue. A long-awaited whole-of-government approach is in the mix now.
The government is to finalise soon its National Strategy for International Education. It is not before time that Australia’s third-largest export gets this attention.
Phil Honeywood is the executive director of the International Education Association of Australia.