Learning from Australia’s Export Education Model
Sophia J. Lowe
Research & Policy Analyst, World Education Services
Globally, international student mobility has increased substantially. In 2006, over 2.9 million tertiary students were enrolled outside their country of citizenship, representing a 3 percent increase from the previous year in total foreign student intake around the world (OECD, 2008). In Australia, demand for tertiary studies from abroad has soared. In 1999, there were 162,865 international students enrolled in Australia; by 2008, there were 543,898 students enrolled, representing an increase of over 233 percent in nine years (AEI, 2008a).1 In 2007/08, international education contributed an estimated A$13.7 billion (US$11.4 billion) to the Australian economy, measured through export earnings, representing the country’s third largest export industry. This significant growth can be attributed, in large part, to immigration policy changes in 1999, which eased immigration opportunities for international students graduating from Australian universities (Hawthorne, 2007).
International students are seen as “the ideal highly skilled immigration candidates to retain” (Suter & Jhandl, 2008: 401), and in recent years many other countries have followed Australia’s lead in developing immigration policies designed to attract and retain international students as citizens. Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, Singapore, Japan and now Canada, among others, have adjusted their immigration policies to better attract international students as potential skilled migrants to replace aging populations. Canada, for example, has made a number of policy changes in just the last few years to attract and retain international students as immigrants. Australia’s successes have been widely noted and many aspects of their student-immigration policies are being replicated. Governments and educational institutions developing and adapting policies should consider the lessons Australia’s ‘export education’ model has to offer, yet should also be mindful of the challenges that the Australians have, and are, facing.
Australia’s Migration Changes and ‘Export Education’
Australia’s export-education model is based on a public-private partnership that is market driven and regulated at the national level. In 1986, the federal government changed the funding model for international students from taxpayer-subsidized to export driven, making it illegal for universities to subsidize the cost of foreign students’ tuition from government funds. These policy changes led to a dramatic increase in recruitment and marketing activities directed toward international students, and in turn a growth in enrollments from abroad. These funding policy changes, coupled with migration policy changes led to significant growth in the number of private, vocational, pathway and English-language colleges, and subsequently qualifications frameworks to regulate tertiary studies and help protect international students (Adams, 2007).
From 1999, international students became eligible for permanent residency upon graduation, a policy initiative that was based on the “assumption that [international students] are characterized by youth, advanced English language ability, recognized qualifications, locally relevant training, and a high degree of acculturation” (Hawthorne, 2007). In 2001, international students were able to apply for permanent residency from within Australia. By 2005, former international students constituted more than half of all skilled migrants in Australia, with 66 percent of Indian and 38 percent of Chinese students remaining permanently (Hawthorne, 2007). In 2006, 88 percent of skilled immigration applicants had first arrived as international students or temporary migrants (Bedford, 2006).
According to Birrell, “universities have organized themselves to maximize the flow of [international] students, and it has a big impact on what universities do” (as cited in The Sydney Herald, September 18, 2006). The goals of international students are different – not just academic – and many students go abroad intending to remain permanently. Indeed, a sizeable proportion of the growth in international students in Australia “was generated by migration-related demand” (Rodan, 2008, 34).
With the enormous growth in the export education industry in Australia, a number of concerns related to quality standards have arisen. These concerns led to the enactment of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act (ESOS) in 2000, and the accompanying National Code which provides consistent codes of conduct for education providers dealing with prospective and enrolled international students.
The Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector, as well as colleges that offer English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS), have become increasingly popular among international students. ELICOS courses provide pathways for international students to learn English for a variety of reasons, including preparation for English tests required to enter other programs. This is especially common in preparation for higher education and VET programs that qualify graduates to apply for permanent residency through Australia’s Migrant Occupations in Demand List (MODL) (Ahern, January 2009). In 2006, the MODL played a significant role in the decision-making processes of international students, as courses in VET and ELICOS were often faster and more direct routes to permanent residency. Between 2007 and 2008, VET course enrollment by international students surged by 41.3 percent compared to 4.8 percent for universities and 23.9 percent in ELICOS courses. In 2008, of the 543,898 full-time students enrolled at Australian institutions of education, 32 percent were in the VET sector and 23 percent in the ELICOS sector (AEI, 2009).
|Nationality||Percentage distribution of international students by sector|
|Republic of Korea||19.2%||25.5%||36.2%||15.6%||3.5%|
Students may also enroll in more than one type of course and take pathways through various program types. For example, of all international students, 35.5 percent follow a multi-sectored pathway, and of these, 24.4 percent go from ELICOS to higher education and 22.1 percent from ELICOS to VET (AEI, 2008b). Of those students that start in the ELICOS sector, 67.4 percent go on to take other courses and pathways. For Chinese students commencing in 2005, 28 percent started in ELICOS and moved to higher education; for Brazilian students, where few are enrolled in higher education, 30.3 percent started in ELICOS and moved into the VET sector (AEI, 2008b).
Successes and Challenges
The push to recruit and settle international students as migrants in education-exporting countries is based on the premise that international students are considered a type of ‘designer immigrant’ in that they are able to avoid many of the hurdles commonly faced by skilled immigrants, such as the non-recognition of international credentials and skills, and concerns over language and communication abilities (Simmons, 1999).
Following the Australian policy changes to recruit and retain international students as immigrants, employment rates among immigrants within six months of arrival surged from 57 percent in 1993-95 to 81 percent in 1999-2000 (Hawthorne, 2008, 30). By 2006, labour market outcomes had improved substantially, with 83 percent of skilled migrants (most former students) securing work within six months (Birrell et al, 2006). Unemployment dropped markedly, labour market participation rates increased significantly and job satisfaction among independent migrants began to increase – “in 1999-2000 61 percent claimed to ‘love or really like’ their work, compared to 50 percent six years earlier” (Hawthorne, 2008, 31). At the same time, there have been over 1 million international students who have returned home after their studies – providing future business relationships and ties with Australia and promoting the education system (IDP Education, July 2008, 3).
However, of those international student graduates who immigrated, only 46 percent were “immediately using their professional credentials to work, compared with 63 percent of older offshore applicants (the latter had 82 percent employment rates)” (Hawthorne, 2008, 28). In a recent study of international students in cooking courses, enrollment increases have been exponential, going from 1,019 in 2004 to 8,242 in 2008. A plausible explanation for this marked increase in interest from overseas for culinary programs (an over 800 percent increase in enrollments) is that cooking is on the MODL, meaning that most international students who finish these courses (mainly in VET) gained permanent residency. Unfortunately, due to a mismatch between the rules governing training and immigration rules, very few “obtain employment in Australia as trade level cooks” (Birrell et al., 2009). According to a research study conducted by Hawthorne (2007), international graduates earn an average annual salary of A$33,000, compared to A$52,500 for immigrants who applied from offshore.
Possibly of most concern are the findings of a 2006 study by Birrell, which shows that 34 percent of international students who were granted permanent residency in 2005-6 had not achieved the English language scores that were required for entry into Australian post-secondary institutions. This has raised important concerns about how these international students gained entry to these programs, and more importantly, how they successfully got through their programs of study. In light of these findings, as of 2007, all international student graduates who apply for residency are required to pass a language assessment as part of their application (Hawthorne, 2007).
Conflict of Interest?
Australian universities “have accelerated their transformation from ‘academy to global business’ in part through increased recruitment of international fee-paying students” (Hawthorne, et al. 2004: 150). Research and commentary in Australia have suggested institutional conflicts of interest, “leading to potentially compromised international student academic entry and progression standards” (Hawthorne, 2007). Some Australian institutions have been accused of changing practices for selection, admission and teaching of international students in order to reap the financial benefits of high enrollment of full fee-paying foreign students (as cited by Murray et al, 2007).
Birrell (2006, 55) underlines the importance of immigration as a study motive:
The expansion in overseas student enrolments in the higher education sector appears to be driven by interest on the part of overseas students wishing to obtain [permanent residency] PR. This generalization is based on evidence that most of the growth in overseas student enrolments in the higher education sector has occurred in courses which potentially lead to a PR outcome within two years.
Some have suggested that low government funding for universities has pushed them to “become marketing outfits with a growing addiction to the income earned from full fee-paying international students” (Fullerton, 2005). However, in a study of the financial effects of international-student flows at three universities in Australia, it was shown that large revenues from these student flows were not reinvested in research capacity and quality of teaching; but used to expand and market further (Marginson & Eijkman, 2007).
For many international students, “immigration was the driving force in selecting a course, as, under government regulations, successful completion in an area of designated ‘skills shortage’ would help the graduate secure permanent residency in Australia” (Rodan, 2008, 34). According to one international student, “I want to apply for permanent residency, and that’s why I chose this course. I get 15 points” on the MODL (The Sydney Morning Herald, September 18, 2006).
As international students have come to Australia in large numbers, universities have become “mired in allegations about falling standards, soft marking, plagiarism and backdoor immigration” (Fullerton, 2005). There have also been major concerns regarding inadequate surveillance or quality control of the rapidly emerging VET sector which is providing migration-aligned courses (Hawthorne, 2007, 5).
International students quoted in the media have outlined the use of unscrupulous agents and recruiters, who, at times, give false information and charge hefty fees, in pinpointing the blame. While recruitment concerns were an issue prior to immigration policy changes, the scale and scope of the issue has changed to include bogus immigration promises, issues of falsified prior education and experience and language tests to facilitate academic entry, misrepresentations about institutions, as well as housing and job prospects. Many of these misrepresentations and acts of fraud are the result of a massively expanded network of recruitment agents who are typically paid on a per student commission basis, although a number of VET colleges have also been implicated in recent newspaper articles for fraudulent enrollment-related activities. According to the Migration Institute of Australia’s chief executive, Maurene Horder, “misleading potential students is common, and regulation is urgently needed to produce qualified and accountable agents” (Healy, April 15, 2009).
While many issues have been associated with the export education model in Australia, a number of safeguards exist to protect international students through government regulation. The ESOS Act (2000) sets out the requirements for bona fide education providers and is a “means of ensuring that individuals receive student visas only for legitimate study purposes” (Thorn, 2005, 10). Given the market oriented nature of Australia’s education system, the ESOS Act provides the consumer with regulations protecting international students, and potential penalties to universities that do not follow them. In addition to the ESOS Act, and its accompanying National Code, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee Code (2005) sets out principles and codes of practice for Australian universities.
The Code enables universities to regulate their own activities against agreed sector wide benchmarks within the framework of their legislation-based autonomy. All AVCC members’ universities are signatories to the Code which requires them to make a conscious commitment to adopt and maintain consistent and caring procedures in relation to the recruitment, reception, education and welfare of their international students.
(AVCC, 2005, iii)
The Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) conducts audits on academic quality at universities and has paid specific attention to monitoring the delivery of education services to international students. The influence and oversight of this agency has been significant in maintaining quality assurance for international students at Australian universities. Combined, these government regulations and institutional oversights have helped mitigate quality issues for international students and protect the reputation of Australian universities.
There are many benefits to internationalizing university and college campuses, beyond the boost to the bottom line of a university’s balance sheet. These include better cultural understanding between nationalities and countries, the mobility of knowledge and research, and greatly increased cross-border academic collaboration. However, there are drawbacks. In the Australian context, greatly increased international enrollments, coupled with immigration policy changes, have caused many issues in the VET and ELICOS sector as well as issues for universities where some have opened special branch campuses targeted at international students. In such instances, “academic segregation” and “cultural and linguistic enclosure” for those attending regional university branch campuses is a major issue (Hawthorne, 2007) and there is little mixing with Australian students. This trend significantly negates one of the major non-financial benefits of internationalizing the campus, which is cultural hegemony and cross cultural interactions. Moreover, where classes with international students are more mixed with Australian students, at times, poor language skills “may slow down the pace of instruction” (Suter & Jhandl, 2008: 408) and compromise academic standards for all students.
The Case of Central Queensland University
Central Queensland University (CQU) has a reputation as one of Australia’s most progressive and innovative universities. Originally a regional university based in Rockhampton, CQU now has a number of international and branch campuses to “ cater to international students” (CQU webpage). CQU’s Australian International Campuses (AICs), located in Brisbane, Gold Coast, Melbourne and Sydney, are designed primarily for international students – with Australian students representing only 10 percent of the AIC student body (Rodan, 2008, 34).
Overall, CQU has been very successful in recruiting international students, with over 50 percent of the university’s student population coming from overseas from more than 100 countries (Owens, 2008, 71). In 2006, international students contributed 15 percent to overall university funding in Australia; at CQU, international student tuition fees accounted for half the university’s total revenue (DEST, 2007), with international students paying approximately A$24,000 for a two-year master’s degree (Hoare, 2006). According to the Good Universities Guide (2009), 53 percent of CQU students are non-native English speakers at the undergraduate level and 91 percent are non-English speaking at the postgraduate level.
Research has demonstrated that the biggest concern regarding barriers to the success of international students is English language facility (Robinson, et al., 2000 as cited by Carroll & Ryan, 2005, 36). Despite “the increasing acknowledgment that international and domestic students benefit from a situation where local students are in the majority, most institutions are reluctant to cap the numbers of international students” (Kuiper & Cameron, 2003, 13) and many, like CQUs AICs, are almost exclusively international students. On the positive side, according to Asmar (1999), international students with low language competency can survive, or even thrive, with proper support systems (Carroll & Ryan, 2005, 36). These supports however, are not always present in classrooms, on campus and in the community.
Sydney and Melbourne are the cities of choice for international students in CQUs AICs. In 2006, Sydney hosted 6,483 international students and Melbourne 4,370. The remainder studied at Brisbane (1,096), Gold Coast (575) and Rockhampton (317) (Ministerial Review of Central Queensland University, August 2007, 14). According to IDP Education Australia, CQU has been branded as “the number one destination and largest provider in the country for international students studying in Australia” (CQU website, Term 1 2006).
While there are many potential gains to diversifying campuses and learning environments, the campus structure of CQU’s AICs separates domestic students from international students (AUQA, 2006, 10). A number of concerns about the AICs have been raised in the media and by international students and there have been a number of protests by international students at CQU. In 2006, a group of international law students at CQUs Melbourne campus complained about the 64 percent failure rate in the program, claiming that the university does not have adequate resources and that they were tested on materials not covered in class (Hoare, 2006).
Students have also raised concerns that CQU “staff have a low level of research activity […and that] this is particularly problematic for a University claiming to foster an association between teaching and research” (AUQA, 2006, 4). Tutors from CQU have complained that they have been pressured to pass international students who have plagiarized – and to ignore the issue (The Sydney Herald, September 18, 2006) since the issue is that “failure and exclusion represent more than the threat of an early return home [for international students]: they would signal the end of the immigration dream” (Rodan, 2008, 35). In terms of agent use at CQU, there is a referral scheme in place in which international students “can become de facto recruiters” and benefit through “a loyalty program” of financial incentives (Ewart, 2007). Again, ethical questions have arisen about prioritizing the financial benefits of having international students on campus and the lack of regulation for this type of recruitment.
Since 2005 and in light of media hype and public outcry surrounding CQU’s AICs, there have been three audits conducted of the university; The AUQA Audit in 2006, the Carson Review of Student Complaints in 2007, and the Ministerial Review Panel in 2007.
In 2007, the Ministerial Review Panel found that the complaints submitted by CQU Melbourne students with regard to examinations could not be proven, as they found “no evidence to suggest that CQU failed students as ‘a revenue raising exercise’” (2007, 9). Still, as the Carson Review points out, “many of the difficulties encountered by CQU at its Melbourne Campus may stem from the difficulties inherent in delivery of centrally directed and examined academic courses at ‘remote’ sites” such as AICs (2007, 12). Further, it was reported that since a large proportion of AIC’s academic staff are contract and casual staff, there is “an effect on the student learning environment, in terms of continuity over time and across the University” (AUQA, 2006, 50).
These reviews, reports and commentaries about CQU and other Australian institutions raise some questions about the complex situation of recruiting international students who intend to stay in the country following their studies.
The growth in international enrollments has had a significant impact on the Australian economy, including the creation of 126,240 local jobs. However, heavy reliance on this industry has its problems as an estimated 6,312 of those jobs would vanish if the sector suffered a five percent drop in overseas enrollments as a result of the deepening global recession (Xinhua, April 2009).
Given the current global financial crisis, many Australian institutions feel threatened economically by the prospect of reduced international student enrollments. Many of Australia’s institutions rely heavily on international student markets for short-term funding. At CQU, after immigration policy was shifted to add graduate language requirements, the international student population fell by 25 percent. Since the university has relied so heavily on international student revenue, more than 200 administrative positions have been cut (Maslen, 2007).
Further, as the recession has taken hold the government has started limiting job opportunities for foreigners, leaving many international students with fewer options to finance their studies. “ Many students also choose Australia, in part, with an eye toward immigration. But as the government has started limiting job opportunities for foreigners because of the bad economy there, future students may think twice before applying” (McMurtrie, 2009).
Learning from Australia
With a highly competitive global higher education market, countries are luring potential students through a variety of initiatives, and the promise of residency and work upon graduation is one of the most influential considerations. This calculation has therefore changed the role of universities and colleges to a certain degree. Their “functional scope is no longer restricted to the allocation of quality education […], but has in recent years also come to include immigration-related issues” (Suter & Jhandl, 2008: 403). In Canada, and many other countries, where recent immigration policy shifts have targeted the recruitment of international students as migrants, government and educational institutions should pay close attention to lessons learned from Australia’s experiences.
Recent changes for international students in Canada allow for more flexible employment privileges both off-campus during studies and scheduled breaks (2006) and post-graduation work permits (April 2008), which allow international graduates to obtain open work permits for three years with no restrictions to type of employment and no requirements for a job offer. International students are also a main target for the recently launched Canadian Experience Class (CEC) (September 2008). Similar to Australia’s migration program, the CEC is a fast route to permanent residency that tries to retain certain temporary workers and international students who are already in the labour market and meeting employer needs.
The Canadian educational context is unlike that of Australia’s, as public higher education is heavily subsidized and the country’s need to rely on international student tuition is less crucial. However, this differs in each province and territory in Canada, as all levels of education are the responsibility of the provinces and territories. This structure leads to a different dynamic for public-university funding across Canada and its effects on institutional revenue and international students. Public funding for education comes either directly from the provincial or territorial government or through a mix of provincial transfers and local taxes. This creates a diverse situation across Canadian institutions and jurisdictions, as some institutions have no incentive to recruit international students (and may indeed encourage their settlement, as domestic fees are better for certain institutions), while others rely on their higher fees and actively recruit. To demonstrate the vast differences across regions and institutions in Canada, international student fees tend to vary greatly – partly due to how governments subsidize education in each institution. At the University of British Columbia , minimum undergraduate tuition in 2008-09 was C$18,720, at Concordia University (Quebec) it was $11,070, at Memorial University (Newfoundland) it was $8,800, and the University of Winnipeg (Manitoba) charged only $3,994.
The Canadian government is interested in attracting international students as immigrants. As they will have earned their credentials and gained experience in Canada, they will be able to sidestep many of the barriers Canada’s skilled immigrants face in relation to foreign credential and skills recognition. While the CEC is a federal program, it puts the immigration-selection process largely in the hands of educational institutions – which Australia learned created unanticipated institutional practices, programs and policies geared towards students.
Canada has taken some steps to mitigate the potential problems in recruiting and retaining large numbers of international students as immigrants. Since the proposed CEC was announced, a number of revisions have been made to ensure international students are enrolled in accredited degree and diploma granting institutions and that students English or French language skills are tested as part of the CEC requirements. While it is still too early to tell what the overall effects of these immigration policy changes will be for institutions, society and potential immigrants, Canada’s watchful eye on the policies of other countries and lessons learned should prove beneficial.
As demonstrated in this article, Australia has made tremendous financial gains from a robust export education industry. At the same time, the facilitation of international students as immigrants has brought forth unique challenges as the distinction between academic institutions and the delivery of quality education and immigration and employment outcomes have become muddied. For many private institutions and vocational and language schools, as well as universities that have opened branch campuses and catered specifically to international students as potential migrants, concerns persist about standards and delivery of higher education, ethical recruitment and the sustainability of this model.
The quality assurance measures that have been put into place in Australia are an excellent start and should be reviewed carefully for consideration by other nations recruiting international students and facilitating their migration. The development of the ESOS Act and the accompanying National Code, the AUQA audits and the AVCC Code of conduct are helping to protect international students and maintain quality standards in higher education. However, there is a need to expand these quality assurance and protection measures and regulate recruitment practices.
During times of global economic strength, institutions can benefit from international student revenues, but relying heavily on these fees is a potential slippery slope. During times of economic distress, students have access to fewer income sources to finance their education, and institutions that rely heavily on international student revenues are likely to feel the brunt of these declines. Canada should encourage the internationalization of campuses, but move forward cautiously, so as to avoid the shock of a decline in international student enrollment. With this in mind, provincial and federal governments should not view international student tuition fees as a replacement for public funds, but as a supplement.
In the assessment and recognition of international education, well-known countries’ education systems and institutions do not necessarily guarantee the quality and standard of education. In the case of Australia, despite government regulation, at times, academic integrity may be compromised with the push to recruit international students on pathways to permanent residency. It is therefore increasingly important to understand the educational contexts and institutions from which people come. Australian qualifications are generally well-recognized and well-regarded overseas. In “a 2008 survey of international graduates (2005 and earlier) of Australian Technology Network universities, 94 percent of the 1,816 persons surveyed said their Australian degree was recognized by their employer. About three-quarters of these graduates were working overseas” (IDP Education, July 2008, 10).
In this truly global and competitive education market, we need to understand the complex systems of education that people experience. In today’s global economy, competition for international students is booming and competition for skilled migrants is growing as well. International students bring richness and diversity to campuses and communities – strengthening education systems and student experience significantly, as well as contributing significant revenue to academic institutions and the economy. International students are also strong candidates for skilled immigration, as their education and experience in the host country make them more apt to succeed and integrate into the local labour market and society. However, the convolution between regulating education and immigration in this context will continue to present new challenges as more countries compete for international students and skilled migrants.
1 International student numbers in Australia count all those who have a student visa; those in VET, ELICOS, Higher Education, Schools and ‘Other’. ‘Other’ includes study abroad, foundation, enabling and other non-award courses that do not lead to a qualification under the Australian Qualifications Framework. Without the ‘Other’ category, there were 512,756 international students enrolled in Australia in 2008 (AEI, 2009).
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