Why International Engagement is Crucial for Australia's Higher Education Sector
by Dr Jessica Gallagher, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement and Entrepreneurship), The University of Queensland
In January, I commenced an exciting new role as Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement and Entrepreneurship) at one of Australia’s Group of Eight universities. My first 100-day plan was brimming with ideas and initiatives designed to strengthen and expand the institution’s global footprint.
Then, COVID-19 arrived and, with it, my carefully constructed plans went out the window.
The increased desk time has ensured plenty of opportunity to read opinion pieces on the virus’s impact on the higher education sector and expected long-term ramifications. I have been struck with how frequently the commentary reduces international education to a (largely negative) discussion about recruitment activities and over-reliance on international student fees. This narrow depiction of international education is grossly inadequate and undervalues the broad benefits that global partnerships bring to the country’s economy and reputation.
Attracting international students to our institutions is important, for a whole host of reasons.
Our higher education sector is one of the best in the world, with seven universities ranked in the top 100. This success is due, in part, to the sector’s capacity to attract international students. Without the choice made by these students and their families, we would not have become the sector we are today, in terms of global reach and reputation. International students have enriched our campuses, provided different perspectives in our classrooms, and become ambassadors and advocates of Australian education, culture and business around the world.
International education is an Australian export success story, contributing $37.6 billion to the Australian economy last financial year. Our institutions have educated generations of global leaders. Of course, over reliance on any one market is never a good thing and the sector is well aware of this. Diversification efforts will continue and remain a priority for the sake of our domestic and international cohorts.
But international education encompasses much more than welcoming students to our shores. Seventy years ago, the Australian Government introduced the Colombo Plan, which has gone on to support the economic and political growth of the Asia-Pacific region – a significant factor in our foreign policy. In 2014, the Colombo Plan legacy was flipped to support thousands of Australian students to study in the Indo-Pacific. By December 2020, New Colombo Plan alumni will have grown to near 40,000 students.
Australian universities – and the Australian Government – invest in programs such as student exchange and international internships, because we know that only through bringing the brightest minds together, can we tackle the profound challenges our world faces today. Our global partnerships and profile have enabled us to support hundreds of thousands of students to gain new experiences and build a global network. In the last audit of Australian students studying overseas, 49,263 took part in an international mobility experience that year, with 12,713 completing their whole degree abroad. The top three destinations were China, the US, and the UK.
Testimonials from these Australian students always mention how world-changing exposure to another culture is, such as Michelle Howie who was an NCP Scholar in 2015 at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. Her study experience in South Korea, then internship in Telstra in Hong Kong, led directly to her current position as Technical lead of Telstra 5G Innovation Centre on the Gold Coast. She’s using her experience to help forge partnerships with local businesses and with global partners. Her love of the Korean language, its culture and history continue, and is now ingrained in her daily life communicating regularly with partners in Asia.
In addition to fostering mobility of students to and from our country, the global engagement activities of our institutions also contribute significantly to our nation’s prosperity through research collaborations and endeavours. Global challenges require global solutions. Australian universities invest significantly in global research projects and frequently work together to support initiatives that have wide reaching benefits across our region. For example, the Australia-Indonesia Centre brings together universities across these two countries to look at the big challenges they face at home. Backed by the governments of both nations, researchers linked to the Centre are working together on new initiatives such as cybersecurity – an enabler of global trade and prosperity – or digital diplomacy deepening cooperation between both countries digital sectors. All Australian universities can provide long lists of successful international research collaborations that have improved health outcomes, informed social policy and law making, and addressed environmental challenges.
A timely example is the push to find a vaccine against COVID-19, which is bringing researchers together from around the globe.
One lead researcher working to find a vaccine, Professor Paul Young, from The University of Queensland is collaborating with partners in Norway, USA, Netherlands, Hong Kong and Sweden.
“Research of this nature has to have international collaboration, or it does not happen,” Professor Young said to me.
“We could not have accelerated our search for a vaccine to its current stage without international collaboration between academics, and industry, as well as the backing at home of Queensland and Federal governments.”
The virus cares little for our borders or boundaries – physical, cultural, racial, religious or political – and managing this threat and charting the way forward requires close collaboration without prejudice.
Our universities quickly adapted to the current crisis. Campuses were emptied and teaching taken online. Amid the gloom and anxiety of the pandemic news cycle, it was refreshing to see social media feeds filled with students and staff working side-by-side to hand out food hampers and provide academic and welfare support. I have been heartened by the large number of letters from global partners expressing the desire to maintain collaboration and identify innovative ways to connect our staff and students. The spirit of our campus community and the celebration of its diversity has not been dampened by the crisis, but rather reflects the strength of our connections.
Losing momentum with our global partnerships would be a huge loss to our economy and institutions.
Now is the time to show solidarity and foster these relationships, not to turn away. International education is not just dollars and cents – it is about improving lives in every possible sense.
Dr Jessica Gallagher is Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement and Entrepreneurship) at The University of Queensland