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International education plan lacks research vision, universities say

Image: Argonne National Laboratory [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Responses to discussion paper call for greater focus on Australia’s global research links

Australia’s research workforce could be starved of talent under planned changes to the federal government’s approach to international education, universities have warned.

A consultation on Australia’s international education strategy through to 2030 closed on 12 May, and university submissions show concern about the impact of a more online-focused approach to research and international engagement.

The Innovative Research Universities group criticised the lack of a clear statement on the future of international research efforts, saying: “There needs to be a clear research-specific section in the strategy to ensure the Australian government gets behind the reality that research is international.” It added that “the place of research in the government’s international vision has always been uncertain”.

The submission points out that three-quarters of Australian Research Council grants in 2020 involved an international collaborator. “Government commitment to support workable entry protocols long term and the future scope for onshore education is crucial.”

The group questioned the way the policy sought “to influence the nature of future teaching for international students” and called for more engagement with underlying educational questions around the proposed shift to more online and remote learning. It said the development of a consistent “whole of government” policy was threatened by concerns around foreign interference.

International community

The Australian Technology Network of universities said the disruption to international education caused by the Covid-19 pandemic meant Australia risked losing the contribution of overseas students to its research workforce, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It said postgraduate researchers had already been leaving the country at unacceptable rates before the pandemic and that the situation threatened to become worse.

Figures from the ATN show that 61 per cent of postgraduate research students in engineering, and 55 per cent in IT, are international students.

The strategy “needs to account for the significant contribution international students provide to Australia’s research workforce,” the ATN submission said, pointing out that Australia still had too few graduates in government priority areas. “International higher degree students have enabled Australian universities to continue to build research capacity and underpin research despite such shortages.”

The ATN urged the government to increase its focus on skilled migration, particularly post-graduation work and study rights for students. It wants a standard allowance of three years’ residence for two years of study. It added that even when students did not stay in Australia, they formed part of Australia’s international connections, “benefiting…our standing in the international community and our research network”.

The Regional Universities Network’s response called for diversification of the countries international students came from and for a greater focus on regional research strengths such as agriculture, environmental studies and regional health. It said regional universities had the capacity to increase their research student numbers.

The Australian Business Deans Council called for an “immediate” move on reopening borders to students. It said the annual cost to the Australian economy would be A$11.4 billion if borders remained closed until July 2021 alone. The council also asked for changes to post-study work rights to accommodate students studying online.

On 13 May, New South Wales announced its latest plan to bring a group of international students back into the country, but the plan will need federal approval. Some stranded students reacted negatively online, calling the scheme a “lollipop”: slang for bait in a scam.