Dean Forbes



The 9th Annual Higher Education Summit

Brisbane, 27-29th April 2011

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International & Communities)

Flinders University


It was labelled the ‘perfect storm’; but most of us are now over the metaphor.  It proved to be a catastrophe that affected Australia’s education brand across the globe and caused significant damage to many Australian education institutions.

The flapping butterfly wing that launched (but, I stress, did not cause) the chain of events was a violent incident on the streets of Melbourne.  It was followed by clumsy management of the event and related activities, which were then amplified and broadcast to the world by a combination of the instant use of social media and dramatic and often hysterical reporting by the press in India (and in Australia).

The consequences have been a decline in international student enrolments in 2010, mainly due to declines in VET and ELICOS, and ongoing concerns in 2011.  Colleges have collapsed and jobs have been lost.  Universities remain uncertain about enrolments in the second half of 2011 and have further concerns about 2012, due to worries about pathway students.

Within international education it undermined the assumption about the sectors resilience, based on the minimal impact of the Asian economic crisis, and the SARS and bird flu epidemics.


I believe there are three key issues.

First is the trashing of Brand Australia.  A perception exists across many markets that Australia does not welcome students, and that Australia does not welcome immigrants.

The situation has been compounded by several contextual factors.  In particular, there has been a weakening of our capacity to manage the international brand of Australian education.

IDP, which once was the primary vehicle for projecting the Australian universities education brand internationally, has headed in a different direction and no longer has that role.

Austrade is struggling with its responsibilities, both because its standard model is taking time to adapt to selling education services, and because the promotions funding it has been provided is totally inadequate.  The new Austrade tagline (Australia Unlimited) has received lukewarm acceptance in the universities.  It has an emphasis on the Australian spirit, and potential.  But neither the principal nor the subsidiary taglines make much of our knowledge and education strengths.

Second, there is heightened uncertainty resulting from sharp shifts in policy directions that influence international education. Immigration and population policy, and student visas are currently of most concern.  Sitting behind the sense of insecurity is a nagging concern that influential figures in government (and in the opposition) are not as supportive of international education as we would hope, given the contribution international students make to Australia.

Third, ongoing questions are being raised within and outside the sector about whether international education in its current form is sustainable.  In particular there are concerns about the international student experience in Australia.

AEI’s International Student Survey 2010 (based on the International Student Barometer (ISB) data) revealed high levels of satisfaction with the overall living and studying experience for higher education, VET, ELICOS and school students.

Yet despite the survey results, this remains an important issue.  Australian universities are slipping down the rankings on the ISB.  It is not because we are providing a poor quality of service but because our competitors are improving and student expectations are rising.

We also have issues across the whole education sector.  These include: questionable provider standards in both the private and the public sector; an overwhelming concentration of international students in business and management; the quality of student’s English language skills; accusations of soft marking; and incidences of fraudulent behaviour by students and staff.

There are also issues within the broader community.  There persists a perception in the community that international students are taking the places of local students; there remains discrimination/racism in the labour market which distorts the job prospects of graduates; and attempts to make student welfare a human rights issue, whilst well intentioned, risks encouraging the view that international students in Australia are unwelcome.


An important rule of public policy is, or should be: first, do no harm.  Beware the ‘unintended consequences’ of decisions.  That has not always been the case.

Two sets of regulatory processes are of interest.

The first is about changes to student visa arrangements and immigration.  They of course intersected with a public debate during the 2010 elections about immigration and a ‘big Australia’.

The most significant changes were around a shattering of the nexus between education and immigration and tightening up of requirements for student visas.  An example was the 50% increase in the amount of money many students would need to show evidence of having available.

The Knight review is meant to address sector worries. I will return to that shortly.

The second concerns the quality of the international student experience in Australia.

The initial responses to the Baird report to be incorporated into the ESOS Act were introduced to Parliament in October 2010.  It included a particular focus on the registration of providers.  There is more to come.

Governments’ have also been active in drafting strategies to improve the international student experience.  There is COAG’s (the Council of Australian Governments) International Students Strategy for Australia (July 2010), and various State initiatives.  For example Thinking Global: Victoria’s Action Plan for International Education (September 2009) and South Australia: International Education Initiatives 2010.

TEQSA, which comes into being in mid 2011, and the anticipated new national VET regulator that will follow, will ramp up requirements for the registration and regulation of providers of education.

It is too early to judge, or even predict, the impact of each of these initiatives. 


The review of base load funding being chaired by Jane Lomax-Smith is a start.  International education makes several significant contributions to Australia without having to bear the brunt of financing public universities. 

Minister Chris Evans statement on international education in October 2010 pressed the point that despite the ‘unprecedented short-term challenges (it) is no time to stall reform in our international education sector’ (Evans 2010 p 2).

I agree.  But what does that mean?  Evans identified three main areas.  The first was improving the quality of education, and hence the quality of qualifications. This is a reference to TEQSA, the VET regulator and ESOS Act changes.  It also included Government promises of investment in education; but this was before the Queensland floods.

Improving the student experience was the second.  The focus is COAG’s International Students Strategy for Australia. A student consultative committee will be formed, and a national engagement strategy drafted. These initiatives are currently underdeveloped; I am unaware of any public documents explaining exactly how they are intended to work.

Protecting the integrity of the visa system was the last of the three. It was a justification of the policy changes made by DIAC.  However, by the time the paper was delivered the Minister had conceded that the changes had damaged the sector, and needed to be re-examined. 

The first two areas identified by Evans are necessary, but not sufficient. Moreover, improving the quality of education and improving the quality of the student experience are not the Government’s responsibility alone.  Australia’s education institutions, individually and through their peak bodies, have the primary responsibility. 

What else is needed to rebuild international education?

First, reformulate the relationship between international education providers and government, especially with the political leaders, both from the government and opposition.  This would be an essential step in building government confidence in the sector. 

International education is helping to build a strong knowledge economy in Australia and address current and future labour force needs.  The recent report from the Business Council of Australia clearly acknowledges this.

On the one hand, the education institutions must focus more on building resilience and sustainability into their international education business models.  This means avoiding being a government supplicant, and only pressing government to solve problems it has the ability to solve.  And take a more independent position, seeking to solve problems within institutions and collectively through institutional partnerships and the peak bodies.

On the other hand, government must avoid the rhetoric about fixing the sector, as if somehow it is broken. It’s not.  And strengthen its engagement with the sector across all the main departments that have responsibilities connected to international education.

Second, there are the immigration and visa issues raised in the Knight Review.  A good discussion paper was released that addressed some major issues, and sought policy responses to the dilemmas it identifies.  We await the final report with interest.

The key issues for me (and it shows my bias) are the issues that affect Australia’s attractiveness to future knowledge workers.  People who would normally look to going to America, or sometimes the UK, but who just might spend some time in Australia as a student, or even as a graduate.  For these groups the key issues are the speed of processing visa applications, the length of the post-study work entitlement, and Australia’s attractiveness to research students.

Critical to this is jettisoning the idea that immigration has been a subsidy for educational institutions and accept that there will remain a close connection between international education and the national/global labour market, but that it will be fluid and change over time.

Finally, a more proactive approach is required to re-build Australia’s education brand internationally.  A more significant investment in the brand is essential.  It is currently very small compared to tourism, and declined with the transfer to Austrade. The message should be pitched strongly in the direction of Australia’s growing strengths in knowledge based industries and activities, and the benefits it can bring to those who choose an Australian education, or to partner with an Australian educational institution.


AEI (Australian Education International) 2010 International Student Survey 2010. Overview Report, Canberra

Business Council of Australia 2011 Lifting the Quality of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Melbourne

Council of Australian Governments 2010 International Students Strategy for Australia, Canberra

Evans, Senator the Hon Chris, 2010 The Future of Australian International Education, University of Canberra.

Forbes, Dean 2009 “The international student experience in Australia”, Australian Universities Quality Forum, Alice Springs, 1-3 July 2009

Government of South Australia 2010 South Australia: International Education Initiatives 2010. The Key Findings and State Government Response to the Taskforce on Enhancing the Overseas Student Experience in Adelaide, Adelaide

Government of Victoria 2009 Thinking Global: Victoria’s Action Plan for International Education, Melbourne

Knight, Michael 2011 Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program 2011 Discussion Paper, Canberra

Universities Australia 2009 Universities Australia Action Plan for Student Safety, Canberra

Universities Australia 2011 Good Practice Guidelines for Enhancing Student Safety, Canberra.