An international education colleague of mine once told me many years back that he was closely related to the playwright Samuel Beckett. At the time, I didn’t realise how useful being genetically primed to accept absurdity is. Not that my colleague is mad of course.
Waiting for the Australian Government to think strategically about international education does feel a little like waiting for Godot. Godot promises much, is rather elusive and is bound to disappoint, especially if he actually turns up.
We are assured the Australian Government is thinking deeply about international education. There are signals that a Government formulated vision for international education is afoot, apparently to be announced around the time of the release of the Government’s response to the Knight Review. Presumably the vision will be wonderful, comprehensive, cohesive, meaningful and powerful, with the extra element of surprise, since the education sector itself is not really being consulted. There’s lots of action offstage, in the backrooms of Canberra.
Meanwhile, back on stage, the sector is not hanging around waiting for Godot to enrobe.
Given the crisis the sector faces there is agreement that the best way forward is for the sector itself to lead the way out. Progress has been made to formulate a vision and to advance an industry strategy.
Without prejudice to final outcomes a number of things are clear. The global context we face is unprecedented. There is increasingly massive unmet global demand for education and for skilled labour.
The situation is increasingly complex and competitive – globally, regionally and inter-regionally. China is more than likely to “rule the world” in this century. The former economic, strategic and cultural presence of the West is certain to change. The predominance of English as the global language of international relations, business, science, the media and culture will decline. Australia is slipping behind, propped up in its complacency by a mining boom giving little real return to the Australian people and continuing failure to invest in our future lead industries.
One of those industries, education, is allowed to languish. International education particularly suffers from a double jeopardy. For one thing its “international” therefore a boogy man to all those fabricating or prepared to acquiesce in fabricated fear and prejudice against foreigners. For another, its “education”, therefore a low political priority for governments and oppositions.
The international education sector is coming together to formulate a vision and strategy to defeat this malaise. While it is doing so it is useful to reflect on what a vision and strategy might look like.
The vision should probably focus not so much on the industry itself as on the future of education globally and the role international education might play as one of the pillars of Australia’s future security, prosperity and social advancement.
Clearly, the vision and strategy should be driven by underlying principles. Broad multi-party support for international education is a crucial one. We have it now, in the worst sense. Labour is not attending properly and the opposition won’t go into bat being focused on pandering to the rabid anti-immigration fringe. The challenge is to garner positive multi-party support, without it the strategy is unlikely to succeed.
Other principles are important too - broad industry cooperation to achieve the common goals; a fair balance of sectoral interests; a strengthened commitment to quality and ethics; a solid evidence base through good priority research and data for sound decision making; and coherent, whole-of-government support.
Particularly important is a genuine and effective consultative mechanism with Government, something unlikely without some muscle stretching by the industry.
The vision itself should encompass a uniquely Australian value proposition for the export of our education services, stress the quality and creativity of our education system and be broad enough to encompass international students; our own student studying abroad; our increasingly large and influential global alumni; international linkages for teaching, research, innovation and engagement with global industry; an internationally relevant and competitive education system with internationalised curricula and strong foreign language offerings; transnational program delivery and other offshore presences; and international development assistance for countries not getting a fair go. The vision needs to address Australia’s educational, economic, diplomatic, cultural and social needs.
It would be well to model the detailed strategy on that developed for the tourism industry and articulated by the Jackson Report, Informing the National Long‐Term Tourism Strategy. As with tourism, the international education industry crucially needs strategic research, professional development of industry members, industry infrastructure development, an effective, well resourced promotions and marketing strategy and a public relations campaign to explain the benefits of international education to Australians living in our cities and regions so as to counter the manufactured campaigns of ignorance and fear perpetrated by some in the media and in politics. And there must be concrete, properly funded industry-focused action programs to implement the strategy.
The education sector itself already invests heavily in these matters but will need to do even more as Governments are moribund both in terms of foresight and funding and can’t be looked to for either ideas or significant support. The most useful role for government is to enable what an education sector owned and operated industry strategy sees as necessary. If unable to do that, government should just get out of the way.
Finally there really does need to be a structure to carry all this off. Probably only an independent, industry owned international education development authority would work.
Bruce Baird, a friend to the sector, told us frankly last year that politically we were too nice and so, unsurprisingly, not very effective. Perhaps if Godot ever does show up we should give him a punch on the nose.