In April this year, Ben Okri, the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner, told an audience at the University of South Africa that the history of triumphant nations shows how the stories they tell themselves and their actions are in tandem. In the case of the clearing of the Paris slums for example, the Parisians “conceived the city how they wanted it, and they built it”. The stories we tell ourselves help to transform us.
Some weeks ago the Coordinating Council for International Education agreed on a refined “vision” for Australian international education, one that purports to reflect Australia’s aspirations for the international education sector. The statement has emerged as a result of consultations about the draft Australian International Education Strategy released in April. The statement reads:
"Australian international education is a transformative force in realising the potential of learners, communities and economies”.
A vision statement would normally be an aspirational description of what an organisation would like to accomplish in the mid- to long-term, an expression of a desired end state. It would be expected to trigger the desire to achieve the vision in the minds of those who read it. It would need to be clear and memorable and serve as an express guide for choosing current and future courses of action. It would tell a story.
The refined Australian vision statement is a strange beast in a number of respects. At one level, its aspirational elements, if they exist, are obscured by the use of grammar and expression. The present tense especially confuses and dampens the message. Is Australian international education already a transformative force, or one that we are aspiring to?
At another level, the lumping together of “learners”, “communities” and “economies” in the statement clearly strives for inclusivity and comprehensiveness but is overstrained and produces strange bedfellows. The human element in this triumvirate is sadly exclusionist, likely only to frustrate teaching and research staff.
When we unpack these “stakeholder” elements it gets complicated. “Learners” clearly covers international students studying in Australia and transnationally and domestic and international students enrolled in Australia who might have an overseas study experience. “Communities” however is vague possibly to suggest overseas as well as domestic communities.
The enlistment of “learners” and “communities” is a nod towards the “human” elements in international education. The enlistment of “economies” is a nod towards the “cash value” of international education, a handy catch all that might include governments, institutions, commerce, business and industry and possibly individual learners who benefit financially from international education in terms of their employment, careers and remuneration.
The vision statement does reflect a more outward looking focus than its precursor as suggested by some submissions during the consultation phase (and in The Australian on 24 June - “Federal government’s strategy requires global vision”) on the draft Strategy. The statement’s expression however is clunky. The New Zealand Government’s vision statement for international education covers the same ground but is neater and more obviously outward looking:
“New Zealand’s quality education services are highly sought after internationally, and expand our international social, cultural and economic engagement”.
The New Zealand effort is not necessarily conceptually better however. Conceiving and wordsmithing an effective vision statement for Australian international education is not easy.
Fundamentally, the statement should be “visionary” (forward looking), aspirational and should speak primarily to Australia’s own aspirations.
What these aspirations are needs further discussion. Clearly they would include beneficial impacts on students and academic staff, the Australian community broadly, other communities, other countries, and globally. Australia might well aspire to increasing the export of its education and research expertise with a view to advancing our society and people’s ability to function in a globalised environment, enhance our country’s economic prosperity and to contribute actively to regional and global wellbeing.
We should thank the Coordinating Council for having gone some way towards the goal. But the current vision statement lacks a story for ourselves, one we can take up and run with.