Monday, September 11, 2017

Are our Universities holding back our education export potential?

Education is one of the fastest growing industries in Australia, soon to reach number four spot as an employer – ahead of the traditional retail employment machine. Not only this, but education is a spectacular export earner – now worth more than $20 billion to the Australian economy, and most of this is in higher (ie tertiary) education. Education is now worth more in exports than even tourism, and is ranked only behind coal and iron ore as an industry that earns the foreign exchange dollars needed to keep us economically afloat.

This is potentially only the beginning. Our close economic relationship with trading partners like China, India, Indonesia and other rapidly expanding Asian economies, along with the US and Europe, should logically mean the potential of our education exports has barely scratched the surface.

Many of our Universities are already highly geared to the full fee paying international student market. This is a good thing, as the evidence is that it is full fee paying foreign students that are in effect subsidising the costs of tertiary education for Aussie kids (and mature aged students). Universities need to maintain a balance between foreign and domestic student numbers and also need to maintain their academic standards: it’s not simply a case of rapid expansion to meet international demand or this could throw things out of kilter. Many Universities are also at capacity due to physical constraints on their campus or have already expanded by adding additional campuses. 

Some, like RMIT (Melbourne) have seized the opportunity to explore the international demand by opening overseas campuses. Since the year 2000, RMIT has had a presence in Vietnam and has now grown that to a 7,000 strong student body in two campuses – one (the main one) in Ho Chi Minh City and a smaller campus in Hanoi. 

I learned this visiting Vietnam a couple of years ago and it struck me as a terrific idea. RMIT is not the only Australian University to expand overseas. For example, Townsville’s JCU has - since 2003 –had a campus in Singapore. “Bringing programs direct from Australia and resident senior academic staff from JCU to ensure academic quality, students studying at JCU Singapore can be assured of the same enriching university education as our students in Queensland Australia” it says on its website. 

Many local government areas in Australia are keen to explore development of the tertiary education sector as an employment generator and as a ‘clean’, knowledge based industry. Which is also a terrific idea. Moreton Bay Regional Council to Brisbane’s north recently announced a deal to secure a new campus of Sunshine Coast University on a former paper mill industrial site, in what was widely (and rightly) regarded as quite a coup. 

But in investigating this further it also became clear that many Australian Universities just didn’t want further campus expansion: they have enough sites already. So there are regions with impeccable sites and a supportive policy infrastructure which are unlikely to get a shiny new campus of an Australian University, no matter how compelling the case. “That’s OK,” I thought to myself, “let’s just do what RMIT did but in reverse: let’s bring some international Universities here with a new campus.” 

This could mean bringing campus expansion of some leading international names with an already big appetite for education in Australia. Imagine a University of Fudan (Shanghai) or Hong Kong Polytechnic, or a University of Delhi (with an astonishing 400,000 strong student body) or Universitas Terbuka (Jakarta – and with an even bigger student body of 650,000) having a campus here? Students, teachers and researchers from overseas would be exposed to western culture and language, and Australian students would also have the opportunity to study at an overseas University without having to leave the country. Our export potential could go exponential.  We create more high value jobs in a fast growing, clean industry, we grow our export dollars and we cement valuable trading and cultural relationships within the region and elsewhere. 

But alas, this is Australia; if only it were that simple. I soon learned that this was largely an unrealistic dream. Without the full support and cooperation of our existing Universities, this can’t happen. Universities are governed (mostly) by State Legislation and are, in effect, granted a license to operate. The existing Universities would first need to agree to allow foreign competition into “their” market before anything could happen and they are – in the main – largely opposed to allowing that competition in, even though they themselves might be expanding overseas. There are only a couple of exceptions as I understand it, and both are in Adelaide - Carnegie Mellon University and University College London.

Why is it that Australian students and their International compatriots have such limited exposure to International University campuses on Australian soil? Is it just fundamentally unrealistic or is it a strategic blocking force from our own Public Administrators and Higher Education providers? The expansion of Australian Universities off shore is well supported strategy while the limited number of offshore Universities in Australia is an underwhelming frustration. 

Some developers and investment attraction agencies I have spoken with concede their interest to attract international education providers to our shores. As international investment continues to deliver the core funding for future developments it is quite logical that their home based education providers will see the opportunities missed if they don’t leverage their home based capital to support their global expansion. 

There may well be legitimate concerns by our tertiary institutions: erosion of existing fee incomes through foreign competition could jeopardise standards; foreign Universities may mean less foreign student incomes for existing Universities – pushing up fees for domestic students. No doubt there are countless more “reasons why not” – arguments which, at the end of the day, are largely designed to protect a regulated industry from further competition, even if the potential economic value to the country is limited because of it.

But would it really do that much harm? Consider the huge number of Universities in the USA for example: the competition there doesn’t seem to affect the position of the leading institutions which continue to build strong global brands with small student numbers. MIT has 11,500 students. Harvard some 22,000. Though small and despite swimming in the same sea as legions of others, they remain brands of global repute. There is no reason our own institutions should fear competition if their standards of excellence in research and teaching were such that competition was not a threat but an opportunity to elevate their reputations further. 

Australia is at the end of the day a small country with desirable education qualities in a region of mega nations with a matching appetite for the education opportunities we could potentially offer. Is shutting the door to international institutions in this way really to our best advantage?


For more on the value of education exports see:

Also this handy but dated RBA report:

1 comment:

  1. Ross

    Another good post

    “let’s just do what RMIT did but in reverse: let’s bring some international Universities here with a new campus.”

    that's the key to not only more $ but decentralisation of the workforce and better/different jobs than digging stuff up or building more homes at every increasing prices - it will take decades - not in our mindset (yet) but where there are smart, engaged peeps, commercial activity follows