In the minds of Australia’s political leaders, the dominant model of internationalisation of education is international student mobility and the dominant mindset is commercial.
There is little appreciation of the role played by the international mobility of teaching and research talent, internationalisation of the curriculum, the globalisation of research endeavour or the global responsibilities of education institutions, particularly universities, to help solve the challenges facing human societies and the global environment.
Most higher education institutions do not share this narrow view. There is significant agreement that future success will depend on the capacity of Australian institutions to forge creative global and regional alliances and networks based on new understandings of the shifting architecture of higher education transnationally. Institutions believe public policy should be attuned to encourage and support that thrust.
The government’s draft national strategy for international education strongly signals likely future directions. Unfortunately the stated vision for international education is not only narrow, it is also static: focused on the present rather than the future. At the same time the three “pillars” underpinning the proposed strategy — getting the fundamentals right, reaching out to the world and staying competitive — together with six associated strategic goals, are not unique to Australia and offer no surprises. In fact the vision and strategy reflect a “steady as she goes” approach and are evidence of complacency.
Despite describing itself as a blueprint, the strategy does not suggest concrete action programs over and above those that have been in place for years. New program initiatives are missing. This is likely to be a conscious positioning by the government, signalling an apparent lack of commitment to provide additional funding to implement the strategy.
It is to be hoped that concrete program suggestions will emerge in time, including as outcomes of the two round tables proposed for this year, the first of which occurred in Canberra last Thursday. The round tables are the first actions of the recently established Co-ordinating Council for International Education. This is a high-level group with considerable potential clout. The council consists of the key ministers responsible for policies and programs that support international education together with knowledgeable education and business representatives.
So, while the draft strategy and the associated consultation architecture are positive moves, the draft as it stands is notably deficient in significant ways.
In particular, it lacks a comprehensive and forward-looking vision for higher education that takes account of the role Australia, as a middle-level power located in the Asia-Pacific region, and Australian universities, with many established regional and global relationships, may play in the regional as well as the global contexts.
Awareness of the need for genuinely equal partnerships with other nations, including collaboration to address global challenges, is absent from the strategy.
The government’s instrumentalist and rather self-absorbed objectives for international education are in sharp contrast to the breadth of the vision of the 1957 inquiry by the Committee on Australian Universities chaired by Keith Murray that heralded the beginning of direct government influence on higher education.
“Universities have an inescapable responsibility to contribute to the general pool of scholarship and discovery, to throw light on the problems of contemporary society, whether in a local or broader context; further, judged pragmatically, university research must be the door through which must come in an increasing stream, those men and women of enthusiasm and high capacity of whom the Australian community has need, if it is to exploit fully the potential of its environment, is to ensure the impetus necessary for national development, and render some measure of service to its neighbours.”
There is an opportunity for a new strategy to take a comprehensive view and to seek to integrate the national innovation, education and training, and science and research agendas and infrastructures into Australia’s international engagement efforts.
As Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb has said: “An international strategy should incorporate education as well as science and research. This could enable us to take a prioritised approach for international engagements and fund them accordingly.” A more comprehensive and genuinely reciprocal international education strategy is needed. The narrow focus is inadequate and will be increasingly so in the future. This is the challenge the Co-ordinating Council for International Education needs to take up.