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Vice-chancellors fire warning over immigration changes


International education ‘soft power’ underpins Australia’s national security and foreign policy interests, report says

Any changes to Australia’s international education policy “must have an eye firmly on maintaining our global reputation, economic prosperity and social progress”, Universities Australia has said.

A report commissioned by the vice-chancellors’ association and delivered by the Lygon Group, an international education consultancy, says that future markets for international students will be in Africa and south-east Asia as well as the current hot spots of China and India.

Australia should be working on “relationships and strategies now” to ensure it is “a part of the success story of countries such as Bangladesh, Kenya, Egypt and Ghana”, it says.

However, it also urges Australia to avoid putting up barriers to cooperation with Chinese researchers. A current decline in Australia-China research collaboration “is primarily led by the fears and hesitations of researchers themselves and could result in a future for Australia with a diminished research relationship with the world’s leading technology and innovation powerhouse”, it says.

“Australia should not repeat the mistakes of the US. It should reassure academics that they will not be targeted unfairly on the basis of their connections to [China].”

Soft power

When the report was released last month, Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia at the time, said in a statement that “the sector plays an important role in shaping global responses to global problems through research and soft power”.

Jackson urged caution in any changes to the current “settings” on international education. The federal government is weighing up changes to immigration rules in order to bring down the overall rate of immigration, including changes to education visas.

“The projected changes to the global population mean we will need to engage with new partners to sustain education as a major export industry,” Jackson said.

The Lygon Group report says there is a “gap” in Australia’s understanding of its “international education sector as deeply entwined with our global research strengths and capacity”.

It concludes that consideration of the economic benefits of international education has begun to outweigh its importance in “maintaining and promoting Australia’s interests within a rapidly changing Asia”.

“In the future, Australia’s education and research soft power should be actively supported as underpinning our national security and foreign policy interests.”

The report also warns that Australia will need a constant supply of international PhD students to maintain its status as a “research powerhouse”.

Changing picture

The Lygon Group projects trends to 2050, finding that population changes could mean a sharp downturn in students coming from China and a corresponding increase in potential students from parts of Africa and south-east Asia. “By 2050, the global international education sector will no longer be dominated by the traditional Western, English-speaking nations,” it says.

Australia should also be developing links with the Pacific through more scholarships and more exchange programmes sending students to Pacific nations, the Lygon Group recommends.