Shelves normally containing pain killers are near empty at a Sydney Woolworths. Picture: Supplied
Shelves normally containing pain killers are near empty at a Sydney Woolworths. Picture: Supplied

Our China-dependant universities must learn from coronavirus

The implications of how the world has reacted to the spread of coronavirus for Australian universities and higher education institutions has seen something of a scramble.

The government's ongoing extension of its travel ban for passengers originating or transiting China has meant new thinking in support measures. There's still much to play out in this difficult time and I suggest it will get worse before it gets better. And once it does, then what

The wider concern is how to overcome this issue and better place the industry for sustainable growth and resilience to this and similar problems. The industry has come under criticism on number of fronts relating to international students, including from within. This is not new or unexpected.

The bigger picture though is that in a relatively short period Australian higher education has moved to the forefront of international education through a high-quality product and (mostly) effective, but ever changing policy settings from various governments in the education and immigration portfolios. This is an outstanding achievement to be applauded and supported in to the future.

Disinfection professionals, wearing protective gear, clean escalator handles to guard against the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Disinfection professionals, wearing protective gear, clean escalator handles to guard against the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

There is serious and ever-increasing competition in this industry for which our government and institutions must prepare. Only the US and UK rank higher in the priority thinking of most overseas markets looking for an international education, but only when their policy settings remain facilitative and encouraging. Work rights and pathways to migration are attractive add-ons for those seeking an international education. We should not shy away from these as they can, when applied appropriately, benefit our economy and society not just in the short term but for years to come.

The long term payoff for Australia of well-educated, high functioning and contributing migrants and the linkages they maintain with their countries of origin is immense. However, these add-ons can, and do, become the primary motivators for many, instead of the education.

Since the UK reintroduced post study work rights last year there has been a substantial shift in many student source markets back to prioritising destination UK. There are also significant risks already emerging for the UK because of that one policy change. Advertising in high risk markets has seen a return of the "Study in the UK - no-English test required" banners.

What good policy and admissions processes will do is leverage those add-ons to attract (and quickly admit) the highest quality global talent seeking an international education.

However, allowing admission and maintaining enrolment of underqualified students that primarily seek a work or migration outcome undermines the community's confidence in the industry and the government.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt with Australian Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy during a press conference on coronavirus. Picture: Gary Ramage/News Corp
Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt with Australian Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy during a press conference on coronavirus. Picture: Gary Ramage/News Corp

If there is a lesson that needs to be learnt from this, it's that diversity of markets is good business practice and can be a key protective measure against such regional risks as we are seeing with coronavirus and we have seen previously with community safety or global economic downturns (or both). The bumps and potholes on this road will continue to come at us and other education-providing countries.

Australian education providers need to be more sophisticated in identifying and converting talent in markets beyond China. These markets come with as much or greater risk than current markets which institutions and the government must engage with and navigate in order to attract and secure the highest quality students. Many institutions already know they must look more to South Asia and Africa to identify the many well-qualified and talented students that seek a quality international education and, most importantly, that will meet the subjective visa criteria.

To be fair, this is much harder for institutions than their experiences have been with the China market for a range of reasons. Individual institutions (or even the immigration department) can't be effective and efficient in all markets at assessing the genuine intentions of applicants to study in Australia.

The use of independent, trusted and credible partners will allow institutions (and government) to engage with these recruitment risks, mitigate them and restore confidence in the integrity of the industry. There needs to be a conversation around that.

Time will tell how well institutions (and government) develop their longer-term strategies on diversification but the coronavirus experience to date has shown how high-level dependence on one or a small number of markets exposes significant risk to such a business model.

Former immigration official Andrew Durston is the CEO and co-founder of Probitas Quad


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