Opinion Editorial: Go8 wary of poor policy settings

8 Mar 2017

By Vicki Thomson
The Australian


We grow up learning that the shortest route between two points is a straight line. And the straight line often missed by those with their hands on Canberra policy levers is that which connects higher education to the economic development driven by Australia’s international education industry.

This is why the Group of Eight made a strong submission to the federal government’s foreign policy white paper — the first of its kind since 2003.

International education is one of Australia’s super growth sectors. In the context of fiscal restraint and economic uncertainty, our sector’s export earnings have gone from strength to strength. Last year these earnings grew to a record $21.8 billion, representing the nation’s third largest export industry and largest services export industry.

At the heart of this success has been the internationally recognised quality of the Australian higher education sector. Certainly, Australia as a secure, English-speaking, beach-ringed First World country makes us attractive. However, for international students whose families are making huge sacrifices to invest in their education, the real and reputational value of the Australian degree is paramount.

The Go8, with six members ranked in the world’s top 100 universities, is the choice for one in three of the international students from 200 nationalities who choose to study here. In establishing the value of an Australian degree, the performance of our universities in international rankings, driven by research excellence, is vital. The rankings are a clear statement to the world that an Australian degree is a quality degree and that Australia is a quality destination. Go8 performance generates the rising tide that floats all international education boats in the Australian system.

This does not come handed to us on a plate. It takes effort. It takes a determination to accept quality students who become quality graduates with an impact on the future of the nations they return to. It takes a dedicated commitment to excellence in teaching and research that can never be allowed to drift.

But it is also an industry that is vulnerable to international conditions: fluctuations in the currency, geopolitical and diplomatic events as well as international competition from fast-improving Asian university systems.

It takes a policy environment that is supportive, not detrimental, no matter how unintentional the negative effects might be. As we outline in our recommendations, the sector is facing two streams of policy impact, both of which ignore their potential effects on the international student market.

The first is that foreign policy decisions must take into account possible risks to the international operations of the higher education sector, acknowledging its important contribution to the nation’s economic stability and prosperity. All too often policy development misses or ignores the fact that university research funding — or rather the lack thereof — directly feeds into lower university rankings.

Research and education are intricately connected through our performance in international research rankings. The better Australia performs, the larger the pool of applicants who pursue university and research training on Australian shores. The federal government must recognise that cuts to research funding not only affect our capacity to conduct research in Australia, they fundamentally undermine our $21bn education export industry and our ability to engage with international research partners and in global innovation systems.

The Go8 spends $6bn a year on research, 99 per cent of which is ranked as world class or above. But it takes time for the pain of wrong policy levers to become obvious in lowering rankings and in fewer international enrolments. By the time the economic pain is obvious it will be too late to avoid significant financial and reputational damage. Those who make policy decisions need to take heed, and urgently.

The second recommendation might appear more abstract, but it is no lesser of an issue — that the federal government explicitly recognise the fundamental importance of Australia’s research efforts as a pillar of international engagement. Recently a large number of Go8 postgraduate research students were significantly affected by changes to Australia’s visa system which caused long delays in processing applications — without communication updates regarding their processing.

Australia has to “fight” in an increasingly competitive international marketplace for every research student who chooses to come here. Poorly managed visa changes are exceptionally damaging to Brand Australia. This is unfortunate at a time of great opportunity, when Australia should be poised to benefit from the political turmoil of our two major competitors, the US and Britain. Now is the time to seize this opportunity.

Well-funded university research that transcends national borders is critical to global research results. This is no less true for Australia, especially given higher education is critical to the national economy. Wrong policy levers won’t just affect us now, but will continue to wreak devastation into the future.

Contact:  Vicki Thomson  Group of Eight Chief Executive   on +61 417 808 472