What did international students ever do for Australia?
Australian higher education has failed to explain the value of international students to the Australian public.
Or at least that is the view of one vice-chancellor, professor Margaret Sheil of the Queensland University of Technology who told the Times Higher Education ANZ Live conference this week: “We did not take the vast majority of the Australian public on that journey to convince them of the benefit of international education.”
“International students are far more than economic statistics”
Yet the economic evidence speaks for itself. According to the minister for Education Dan Tehan, in 2019 international education contributed $37.6 billion to the Australian economy, a $5 billion increase on the previous year.
He also explained that this directly benefitted Australians, stating: “Australians should be proud of our innovative international education sector. It is our largest service-based export and supports 240,000 jobs, business opportunities and economic growth.”
But Covid-19 has shaken us all, we locked down into our cities, suburbs and homes and for a while, the travel many of us had enjoyed seemed a thing of the past. The planes were grounded. It was hard to look forward to how things might be in the future.
Campuses were quiet; some students travelled home, most went online for their teaching.
My own company Study Group made an almost overnight transition to teaching at a distance and offering student support virtually, and our university partners did the same. Some of those students were in local accommodation, others around the world.
Our staff did everything in their power to keep education on track. To them and to me, international students were and are far more than economic statistics. They are talented young people who bring vitality, energy and optimism to Australia, along with their tuition fees and spending in local economies.
So, if the average member of the public does not feel convinced about the benefits of international students, perhaps it would help to put a face to the statistics. This is just one story of thousands.
Joey Zhu is a recent Civil Engineering graduate from the University of Sydney who first came to Australia as a pathway student on a Study Group-run University of Sydney Foundation Programme. A Student Ambassador for the university, he helped other young people learn about Engineering and acts as a mentor for HAPP.
His hard work in learning English and on his degree paid off with a First-Class Honours degree from Sydney and the award of the University Medal.
This wasn’t the only recognition for his contribution – the J A L and D L Shaw Award recognised academic proficiency in the study of civil engineering and Joey’s ‘significant continuing contributions to the life of the University and to the general community’ and the University of Sydney Academic Merit Prize recognised his achievement as a student. He will now go on to study for a PhD.
“International education contributed $37.6 billion to the Australian economy”
But his understanding went far beyond engineering and he thanks his teachers, “for giving me a great start. The transition to Australia was so much easier, and they helped me understand about university and Australian society.
“I will never forget the wisdom and sense of humour. Now as a PhD student in Sydney, I am so excited about a new journey and I will keep on trying to push the boundary of human knowledge.”
Joey is an outstanding engineer and I’ve no doubt he will make a positive difference in the world and be loyal to his educational home-from-home in Sydney.
But behind every international student statistic, there is a story of a young person who made the brave decision to leave their home and travel to study in Australia. Often their families have made real sacrifices to make that possible.
The students I know are keen to make friends and enjoy the full Australian lifestyle. They are happy if doing so supports Aussie jobs, keeps courses viable and underpins university finances and local economies along the way.
Now the world is very tentatively emerging from the initial impact of Covid-19, aware of the need for safety but also conscious that life and the economy must go on.
Unless and until a team of international scientists successfully develops and tests a vaccine in a university, we must find new ways of going about our lives – and that includes education.
“We must find new ways of going about our lives – and that includes education”
Australia has every reason to be proud of its great universities and that many thousands of young people from around the world choose to make us their second home during their studies.
A country which is ambitious and vibrant welcomes talented young people and encourages the connections that follow. We need to tread carefully of course with safety always at the front of our minds.
But we mustn’t turn in on ourselves. Universities and cities are all the better for students like Joey. I for one am looking forward to welcoming other students back to our shores.
Alex Chevrolle is the managing director of Study Group Australia and New Zealand and part of a higher education network working closely with the government to welcome international students to Australia.
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