Keynote address – 32nd ISANA Annual Conference
Thank you Bronwyn
I’m joining you from Gadigal land and I wish to pay my respects to Gadigal elders and to recognise all First Nations people participating in the conference.
The speech I’m about to give is one I’ve tweaked a bit in the last couple of days as the world and Australia has reacted to the discovery of a new COVID variant and following the release of the new International Education Strategy.
Before I unpack what’s in the Strategy – let’s reflect briefly on today’s date: 1 December 2021
It should have been a day for huge celebration in the Australian international education sector as international students arrived into the country for the first time since March 2020 with no need for a permit and no need for quarantine.
Instead it has become yet another ‘almost’ milestone. And I’m sure there are many of you who – like me – feel a bitter sense of disappointment.
I don’t want to downplay or diminish the possible importance of the new strain of the virus but I would note that the NSW government will still welcome its first planeload of international students back on Monday and they’ll do just 72 hours quarantine.
Let’s hope we’re soon back to the place where students return as a matter of course.
Before I speak about the future of the sector and particularly why I think we need to recognise and promote our offer to the world as ‘a global education’ – I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what the last two years have meant – for students and for the staff (educators and professionals) who work in the international education sector.
The last two years have been the most difficult period any of us have ever experienced.
And while we all know that – I really think we need to be mindful of how hard it has been and we need to keep that in mind as we look to the future.
Even when our border properly re-opens and students properly start to arrive back – we need to appreciate that many staff will be working harder than ever to settle students in and they will be doing so after two exhausting years.
The students too will come with different expectations and worries than we saw in pre-COVID times.
In 2022 we can expect that amongst our students there will be those who have lost loved ones to COVID, who have struggled with learning online in less than optimal conditions, who are worried about family and friends at home as further waves of COVID impact the world, and who wonder and worry more than they usually would about what the world and the future holds for them.
Many people have been gloomy about the future prospects for the sector and yet, in recent weeks, as it looked like we were soon to welcome students back – we saw providers and agents preparing for a surge in students to arrive.
The President of AAERI said just last week that students from the sub-continent would be back to 2019 levels by mid-2022.
The emergence of the new virus variant potentially changes that prediction – but what it doesn’t change is the reason for that underlying positivity.
The fact is that the staff working in Australia’s international education sector have done the most remarkable job of engaging and supporting both continuing and prospective students during the pandemic.
Those students overwhelmingly value the support they have received and they are keen to return to Australia in record levels.
Against that backdrop then the questions we face are – (1) what impact will the new International Education Strategy have in the sector’s rebuild and (2) as the world of work changes – what kind of education should we be offering our students?
INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION STRATEGY
I won’t ask for a virtual hands-up on who has read the new strategy but what I would say is that you need to read at least the last 4 pages where the specific actions which the government and the sector will take over the next decade are set out.
I won’t go through them all but I do want to draw your attention to some of them and discuss what they will mean for the future of international education in Australia.
Let’s start with Action 1.1A which is focussed on increasing the diversity of international students studying in Australia – two of the measures here relate solely to public universities but the others apply to all providers.
The measures in Action 1.1A are:
- The government will work with the sector to identify the optimal make-up of international student cohorts and publish guidelines to inform sector decision-making.
- The government will establish and publish an easy-to-understand measure to improve transparency of diversity of international students at public universities.
- The government will work with universities on the development of international student Diversification Action Plans to increase business resilience.
- The government will develop a diversification index to drive transparency of cohort mixes.
The government is also going to review the ESOS Act – to enable these new measures to be introduced into the sector’s regulatory arrangements.
And they are not just concerned with the mix of international students in Australia.
They are also concerned about the mix of domestic and international students – at the classroom level and again that is in ALL providers – not just public universities.
The second dot point of Action 3.1b reads “The sector will support an optimal student mix in classrooms and communities for the benefit of both domestic and international students.”
I’m just going to pause for a moment to let that settle in because these are reforms which will change the sector permanently when they commence.
The government (presumably through TEQSA and ASQA) will not only be checking on each institution’s mix of international students – it will be doing so against an ‘optimal’ published mix for Australia.
Universities will have to have specific diversification plans to show how they’re going to achieve a better mix of students (and presumably they will be measured by TEQSA against their implementation of those plans).
And then all providers will also be held to account for the mix of domestic and international students in their individual classrooms.
That is potentially a tonne of extra auditing for the regulators – and, as a former regulator, I can only imagine the debates…
The auditor says “I’m sorry the published optimal mix is no more than 60% international students and you’re at 72% for this course”
To which the provider might say “Well yes but at the start of the semester we were at 60:40 but a few domestic students transferred to another course, a few switched to a different stream because the timetabling didn’t suit, and a few more domestic students have dropped out…”
And then what?
Will providers who don’t meet the optimal mix be subject to regulatory action? If so – what kind of action might be taken against them?
And is this an area the government should be involved in?
These changes represent an unprecedented intervention by the regulators into providers’ activities.
I can’t imagine any university vice chancellors or TAFE CEOs will appreciate being told how many students they can enrol in each class.
And what about independent providers, some of whom, enrol almost exclusively international students?
While I personally think it’s much better for international students to be educated alongside domestic students and that as a country we should be doing much more to encourage greater links between domestic and international students.
Nevertheless there are international students who choose to come to Australia knowing they will be studying with a specialist international education college.
In future these providers will have to recruit large numbers of domestic students – which in turn will mean these providers will need to apply to offer VET Student Loans, FEE-HELP Loans and state government funded VET programs – to help their prospective domestic students meet the cost of their courses.
These are massive changes to the sector and while I strongly support a mix of domestic and international students in each class and a good mix of international students from a range of different countries – these changes will change our sector forever.
These reforms mean institutions will not just be able to go back to ‘business as usual’ when the borders re-open.
But, as important as these reforms are, there is more to the International Education Strategy than tinkering with which students will sit in which classrooms.
It’s these other actions which I want to discuss here – in the context of what we teach our students and how we ensure Australia’s education offerings remain globally relevant for both our international and domestic students.
CHANGING WORLD OF WORK
The world of work was changing pre-COVID as a result of digital transformation.
The pandemic has turbocharged things and while Industry 4.0 is now part of our everyday language, it was back in 2016 when I first heard talk of Industry 5.0 and even Industry 6 – from an academic at Swinburne University.
I haven’t been back to ask him but it feels like we’re probably up to Industry 10.0 after the last 2 years of transformation….
More seriously though the World Economic Forum notes that “Day after day, we hear stories about systems and machines taking on tasks that, until very recently, we saw as the exclusive and permanent preserve of humankind: making medical diagnoses, drafting legal documents, designing buildings, and even composing music.”
For a couple of years as a consultant in addition to my updates on the sector, I also used to provide regular updates on how technology was changing jobs – and the educational implications of these changes.
Stories on how technology is changing work and how rapidly machines and robots are replacing humans are now so frequent and occur across so many areas of the economy – it’s no longer practical for me to continue to do so.
And in fact even this work has been automated.
If you’re interested in how the world of work is changing then you might want to have a look at some of the work FAETHM is doing.
FAETHM is an Australian EdTech firm which has been helping major global corporations and governments around the world understand the changing nature of work.
Interestingly they have recently been acquired by one of the sponsors of the conference, Pearson, which describes itself as “the world’s leading learning company”.
One to keep an eye on, especially as the team at FAETHM have joined Pearson as heads of a new Workforce Skills division.
FAETHM uses AI to understand how technology disruption is changing the world of work and to help predict the future.
The Australian government is also focussed on better understanding the changing world of work and what that means – at this stage at least for the VET sector.
The National Skills Commission uses AI to “harness the best and widest range of labour market, skills and education data available” through JEDI (which is the Jobs and Education Data Infrastructure) which can identify what skills from a person’s current or previous employment can transfer to different jobs that use similar skills.
So for example as some of the work that accountants do is automated – there is likely to be fewer entry level roles in this occupation BUT the skills accountants have are very similar to the skills data analysts have – and the work of data analysts/data scientists is booming.
JEDI is pioneering a new approach to skills-based labour market analysis that is designed to help:
- people planning their career and exploring future study options
- businesses looking at their workforce planning
- training providers in designing new courses.
And its using data science to do it.
The new International Education Strategy includes a number of Actions to help Australia prepare international students to gain greater recognition for their study and the Australian qualifications they have earned.
But in my mind the Strategy does not go far enough to ensure our education institutions are truly preparing international students for jobs of the future and for global careers.
I am conscious that, as I mentioned at the start of my speech, demand for Australian education appears likely to rebound strongly if the border re-opens soon.
BUT with the government using the new International Education Strategy to signal it does not want (and will not allow) institutions to rely so heavily on students from their traditional source markets (especially China, India and Nepal) Australia needs to rethink its International Education offering and ensure it prepares both international and domestic students for the changing world of work and for global careers.
The initiatives included in the Strategy which are intended to help with greater recognition of the value of Australian qualifications include: Action 1.2A which although it is focused on increasing the attractiveness of studying with Australian institutions offshore, will also help improve the awareness and value of Australian qualifications in students’ home countries and in other countries where our graduates may seek work.
The initiatives in 1.2A are that:
- The government will engage with other countries to reduce obstacles to Australian providers operating offshore and online, including through trade agreements and aligning Australian and international settings.
- The government will address barriers that limit recognition of Australian qualifications delivered online and offshore.
- The government will deliver targeted programs to attract international students to Australian education and training in diverse modes of delivery.
The government has also announced changes to visa settings (Action 4.2A) which are designed to help students gain more experience in the workforce before they either apply for another visa to remain in Australia or they take their skills home or to a career in another country.
The visa reforms
- permanently increase the length of graduate visas for Masters by Coursework students to 3 years
- temporarily increase the length of graduate visas for VET students to 2 years, and
- temporarily expand opportunities for VET graduates to apply for a graduate visa by removing the requirement for their course to be linked to the skilled occupation lists
There are other initiatives too such as promoting alumni relations through the government’s overseas diplomatic network which will have a positive benefit, along with a comprehensive focus (not just in the context of offshore delivery) on improving qualification recognition by overseas governments.
All of these are worthy initiatives but as I said earlier, providers are going to need to do more, particularly as competition for international students increases.
It’s not just our traditional competitors, Canada, the UK and the US where we need to be focussed. While they remain attractive destinations for students – there are other countries which have also successfully been attracting large numbers of international students in the last decade.
In Germany for example, the number of international students has increased by 79% since 2009 and according to ICEF the German education brand held strong in 2020 and there was hope for a strong 2021 as well.
Pre-pandemic international students in China had doubled from 2009 to almost half a million international students studying at more than 1,000 higher education institutions.
China is now the largest study abroad destination in Asia according to Jing Qi, a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Sciences at RMIT.
It’s not just growing competition from countries like China and Germany (as well as our traditional competitors) that we need to be mindful of.
We also need to understand that demand for our graduates from employers in the region is also changing.
Pre-pandemic employers in China were placing a much higher value on local graduates than on those who had studied abroad.
Speaking at this year’s Australia-China Business Council Education Summit, noted EdTech investor and longtime China education specialist, Terry Hilsberg from Innohub Capital spoke also of the growing demand for online international postgraduate coursework education from Chinese students who were employed.
He also noted Chinese employers’ demand for closer integration of learning with the postgraduate employment opportunities on offer.
This is not just an issue facing Australian institutions – in fact in 2018 and 2019 the New York Times ran a number of articles and there was quite a debate in the US in particular.
It’s also not just an issue of Chinese employers increasingly wanting graduates with local educational experience.
Speaking at this year’s AIEC conference Australia’s Education Counsellors to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia spoke about the many opportunities for Australian education providers in a transnational and online environment, but overwhelmingly they made the case that these opportunities would be most successful if they were ‘in partnership’ with local institutions.
There were only a couple of examples (in Malaysia and Vietnam) where the respective Counsellors talked up of the specific value of Australian qualifications (in this case it was VET qualifications).
And as these countries continue to improve their own VET systems – the value of their own VET qualifications to local employers will also increase.
So…. The question is with the world of work rapidly changing, with the Australian government wanting a more diverse mix of students studying in Australia, and with employers in parts of the region placing a high value on local educational qualifications…
How do we encourage more students from a broader mix of countries to study with us and ensure we prepare these students for genuine work opportunities on graduation – either in Australia, back in their home countries, or in another country?
Apart from all the amazing educators and professional staff who have made such a difference during COVID – what else do we have to offer?
Universities were already amending their courses pre-COVID to make them more relevant to students and to the changing world of work.
Since then of course the government has introduced the Jobs-ready Graduate funding reforms to try and encourage more students into courses aligned to Australia’s future labour market needs.
And then of course there was the overnight (and for many universities sustained) shift to online teaching during COVID.
So there are multiple shifts underway in the higher education sector to prepare students for new forms of learning and, crucially, for global careers in a rapidly changing world of digital transformation.
I was lucky enough to be a judge in this year’s Australian Financial Review higher education awards.
In that role I learned about some incredible examples of how universities and independent higher education providers are innovating to ensure their students graduate with the skills they’ll need for the jobs of the future and for a constantly changing world of work.
Some examples which showcase the kind of innovation which will prepare students for the new technology driven workplace and which recognise students as digital natives include:
- Flinders University – their College of Business, Government and Law has a new undergraduate law program which recognises that a human centred approach is a key skill for legal professionals in the 21st century and that students need to practice their skills in the real world. In their ‘Law in a Digital Age’ subject – external clients bring real world problems to the university and both law and computer science students build apps to help address clients’ needs
- UTS partnering with Telstra to co-design and deliver a series of stackable microcredentials which meet Telstra’s PD needs for its staff and which count towards a new Masters of Professional Practice. UTS note that “developing curriculum for industry-focused digital learning is very different from traditional face to face teaching”. And I suspect their new online platform developed for this partnership and the lessons on co-designing with industry will be used elsewhere in the university.
- Educational escape rooms, escape boxes and gamification are being used to make STEM more accessible and more engaging. Examples include La Trobe University and the University of Queensland – offering escape experiences in real life and online to engage students in STEM courses, while gamification is being used to teach disaster preparedness at the ANU and at Federation University it’s being used to teach students more about parasites.
- Griffith University’s ‘PharmG’ is a capstone experience for their pharmacy students where they compete to run simulated pharmacies where they have to deal with different patients, some with complex cases or from a First Nations background. They have to manage budgets and staff and try to increase their client numbers.
- And Kaplan Business School has introduced a ‘Lifetime of Learning Guarantee’ enabling all of their graduates to continue attending a suite of online classes linked to their courses, “forever and for free” after they graduate.
INNOVATION IN VET
Despite the efforts of the National Skills Commission and their JEDI data helping VET providers tailor their courses, the challenges in innovating in VET are much greater given the pervasiveness of national Training Packages and the strict requirements on what can and can’t be taught.
That is – only what’s within the Training Package qualification – and rigidly so.
That’s a negative for VET providers educating international students except where the Training Package is neatly aligned to changes in an industry and is well designed not just for specific Australian workplace issues but for a broader global context.
Obviously a well-designed VET course includes a strong work-integrated learning component – which can help give domestic and international students experience working in the occupations they are training for and improve their chances of employment on graduation.
If the VET qualification is a really good fit for the industry and occupation the students are being trained for, is not too narrowly focussed just on the Australian labour market, and if the provider structures the program so that students undertake work integrated learning – then the provider can hand on heart advertise their courses as preparing students for global careers.
With some help from the government to promote Australian alumni offshore and to build overseas governments’ (and through them overseas employers’) confidence in Australian qualifications – these students will be well prepared for global careers and will be competitive in any labour market.
The problem is of course that most Training Packages in the VET sector aren’t so well aligned and that’s why the government is embarking on more reforms to adapt national Training Packages to the changing world of work.
Until that work is done, Australian VET providers face the same need to innovate and value add that the higher education sector faces if they are to ensure they are preparing domestic and international students for global careers.
With limitations on the innovation which can occur within national Training Package qualifications – VET providers instead will need to look at other options to innovate, including:
- complimentary non-accredited micro-credentials which can provide students with extra skills to improve their employability
- examining how students’ part-time jobs (if not related to their course) are teaching them skills which could be recognised through an RPL process towards a formal VET unit of competency or skill set, or a non-accredited microcredential, and
- providers expanding their employer networks so that work integrated learning with larger, more global, companies are a broader part of their offering and students can leverage off these relationships into careers in Australia or overseas.
These strategies are also relevant to the higher education sector.
I note that according to former Vice Chancellor of RMIT University Prof. Martin Bean, speaking at a recent HolonIQ webinar, he and former Vice Chancellor of Victoria University, Prof Peter Dawkins are doing work for the Australian government on the role of universities in collaborating with industry.
Prof. Bean went on to note that the work they are doing for the government is looking specifically at work integrated learning and he claims that it (work integrated learning) is going to be core to program design in the near future for Australian universities.
That’s a bold claim but also a potentially transformational one – for all students: domestic and international.
As we innovate we don’t need to remain fixed in just offering formal, accredited qualifications – particularly if we want to have a global reach.
There are opportunities not just to offer short microcredentials to supplement formal VET or add to higher education offerings and prepare students better for the world of work.
There is also an opportunity to offer more non-accredited education particularly offshore – which is developed specifically to meet local employer needs and which can also feed into improvements in institutions’ traditional formal qualifications.
For example in the higher education sector, the University of South Australia has recently announced a joint venture with the global consulting firm, Accenture, to establish an Innovation Academy in Digital Business which will commence in 2022.
The Academy will offer a fully online Bachelor of Digital Business and “practical upskilling professional development programs” with tailored digital business training modules” for Accenture staff and for their global clients.
Other recent examples include Swinburne University partnering with digital services consulting firm Arq Group to deliver customised digital training in the form of “co-created micro units”.
And RMIT University has partnered with the Singapore Institute of Management to offer digital courses tailored with industry partners including IBM, Amazon and Salesforce.
In the VET sector, DDLS which describes itself as “Australia’s largest provider of corporate IT and process training” offers more than 700 courses and none of them are regulated by ASQA, because they are not AQF qualifications. That is despite DDLS being part of a broader education-group (EdventureCo) which includes two RTOs. DDLS have operations in Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines – delivering a range of corporate training to meet local employer needs.
Nonaccredited education and tailored short courses may well be the most appropriate way for Australian universities and VET providers to take their brands to the world – and offer education which is deliberately designed for local needs.
As long as it does not purport to be something it’s not (ie resulting in an AQF qualification) then the opportunities abound. And if an employer subsequently wants their staff to receive credit towards an AQF qualification the program can subsequently be mapped back to the AQF, or perhaps to a local qualifications framework in partnership with a local institution.
A NEW OFFER TO STUDENTS
Our educational offer should be explicitly based around the experience of working while studying, and of working in roles directly linked to the courses that students are doing .
This should become a key, distinguishing feature of the Australian international education experience.
Our message to students should then be “Come to Australia.
It’s a great country with lots of opportunities and great teachers who care.
It’s also where we help you prepare for global careers with innovative teaching and work integrated learning.
When you study with an Australian provider we’ll make sure you can learn and earn and do work in the industry you want a career in.”
That kind of offer would be a standout in the international education landscape, and the sector of course does not need to wait for the government to receive and implement Prof Bean and Dawkins’ work nor to finalise the VET reforms I spoke of earlier.
It is within the capacity of all higher education and VET providers to offer work integrated learning to all of their students now.
And they should.
It should also be a clear part of our offer when we teach students offshore.
In the same way that we should be engaging with Australian employers onshore in course design and in student placements, larger providers with offshore operations should be doing the same.
And not just feeding advice back from overseas employers into their overseas courses, but in fact sharing those insights more broadly within their institutions.
The Chinese and Singapore economies, for example, are far more digital than Australia’s.
So where we have institutions delivering education in China or Singapore and learning more about what local employers want – we have the chance to transfer those insights (without creating national security headaches) to improve the content we offer all students.
And we should not assume that just because other key countries like India and Indonesia are less well developed than Australia that we can’t also learn from major employers in these markets.
Digital transformation is occurring at pace in countries around the world and the EdTech I saw on a visit to India in late 2019 was far advanced on the EdTech in play in Australia at the same time.
Bringing back lessons from global employers into the Australian education sector could be another powerful differentiator in the international education market.
Why study with Australia?
In addition to those attributes I listed earlier – that is
- It’s a great country with lots of opportunities and great teachers who care.
- It’s also where we help you prepare for global careers with innovative teaching and work integrated learning.
- When you study with an Australian provider we’ll make sure you can learn and earn and do work in the industry you want a career in.”
And then we can add
- Our institutions have extensive and growing overseas operations and relationships with employers in other countries.
- Our courses are designed to help you flourish in your future career wherever you choose to work.”
That’s a very powerful message to our international and domestic students.
But what about smaller institutions or universities which up until now have a smaller offshore foot print?
The fact is that COVID has demonstrated beyond anyone’s expectations – the immense value of partnerships.
With overseas institutions, with private independent education providers and with private businesses offering services to the international education sector.
One of those is Practera which helps deliver authentic digital industry project experiences and which has a global industry partner network.
COVID saw many institutions set up global study hubs and partnerships where they co-taught classes of students with offshore institutions.
I note that State governments are also looking to help, with the Victorian government announcing new study hubs across the ASEAN region recently.
And there were university partners like Study Group who didn’t just provide a study hub in-country for their partners but also organised internships for students unable to enter Australia and studying offshore during the pandemic.
If we can harness this kind of innovation and creativity then Australia’s future as a desirable destination for international students is assured.
Our courses will help domestic and international students gain valuable work experience while they’re studying.
We can offer non-accredited microcredentials to help teach additional important skills where we can’t easily integrate them into our formal courses.
We can explicitly recognise (and badge if necessary) the skills our students have learned from their past and current work experiences.
We can engage with major employers in Australia and overseas to ensure our courses teach the skills learners need for the changing world of work and to help them, both international and domestic students, to forge careers in Australia and globally.
And we can continue to grow our networks and partnerships offshore to help continue to position our education as globally relevant and highly sought after.
After an incredibly challenging period over the last two years there are many reasons to be optimistic for the future of international education.
Australian educators and institutions are adaptive and highly innovative.
The world awaits us.