Science depends on international students for almost half of its HDR load and much of its research funding.

Jonathan Chew Navitas

Jonathon Chew, Head, Strategic Insights and Analytics, Navitas was a keynote speaker at the ACDS Annual General Meeting and Conference. His presentation highligted a number of trends including that science depends on international students for almost half of its HDR load and much of its research funding. It is now suffering a significant diminution in capability and competitiveness in international education because of its handling (or not) of the impacts of COVID-19.

View the presentation: Australian University Science on the Global Stage: Trends, Scenarios and S Student Preferences. The following is a brief summary of his talk.

  • Jon commenced his presentation by exploring the characteristics of Australian University science and where we stand compared to other countries. According to UNESCO data, the Australian Higher Education sector is heavily skewed towards business disciplines, with over 36 % of graduates from Australian Universities gaining qualifications in Business, Administration or Law. This is anomalously high compared to other countries. In contrast, the number of students graduating from Australian Universities with STEM qualifications (<19 %) is anomalously low compared to other countries such as Germany (where 37 % of University students graduate with STEM qualifications). This statistic is even more concerning when we consider the potential impact of the Job Ready Graduate scheme on students’ study choices (as discussed by earlier speakers during the 2021 AGM).
  • Within STEM, the UNESCO data can be further divided into three sub-categories – IT, Natural Science and Engineering. The number of graduates from Australian Universities in IT is relatively high compared to other countries, perhaps due to the impact of International student load. However, the number of Natural Science and Engineering graduates from Australian Universities lags significantly behind other countries.
  • Australia has a relatively high proportion of International students, with 26.5 % of the Australian student body being Internationals. The corresponding load in the UK is around 18 %, with the US HE system having less than 10 % Internationals. In IT and Engineering, the proportion of International students in Australia is well above the national average (with values of > 60 % and ~50 % respectively), while the value for Natural Science is around 22 % in the latest year, with the proportion growing. Hence International student load is an important component of Australian University Science.
  • Focussing on PhD student load, as we are already aware, International students are an important component of our research-student pipeline (Note: data from the HE data cube indicates that in 2019 (the latest year for which data are available), the fraction of International PhD students enrolled in science, IT and Ag/Env Sc was 42 %, 55 % and 46 %, respectively, of the total number of PhD students enrolled).
  • The number of Australian Universities ranked within the world’s top 100, according to the QS, THE and Leiden rankings (with the latter weighted towards scientific performance), indicates that our Institutions are generally well regarded. The Leiden ranking indicates that we do not rank as highly in mathematics and physical sciences as we do in the social sciences.
  • Australian Universities face global challenges due to the COVID‑19 and our national response to the pandemic:
    • Across the world, there was a view that International students would stop engaging with their chosen study destinations and study plans once International borders began to close. In contrast, according to a QS survey, international students maintained their commitment to their studies, with fewer than 10 % indicating their intention to withdraw. However, a significant proportion did signal their intention to delay their studies due to the pandemic.
    • The number of International students who have decided to change their study destination has increased during the pandemic. A Navitas survey of International Education agents has found that around 16 % of agents are recommending to students that they no longer consider Australia as a potential study destination.
    • The UK and Canada are in a much stronger position than Australia to support the return of International students, with better vaccine rollout performance, earlier opening of borders, better availability of flights, quarantine requirements being lifted for International arrivals, etc. These differences are already leading to healthy International student enrolments in the UK and Canada. Student visa data indicate that International student numbers in the first half of 2021 in the UK are higher than in the corresponding (pre-pandemic) period in 2019 by 34 %. The story is not quite as strong in Canada, although their International enrolments are around 4 % higher. In contrast, Australia’s International enrolments are down by 61 % compared to pre-pandemic levels (although we are still offering around 4000-5000 visas per month for students).
  • Around 75 % of the International students who come to Australia would typically use an International Education Agent in their home country to assist them in choosing a study destination and a study-abroad plan. In May 2020, the NAVITAS survey of these agents indicated that, at that time, the agents were typically recommending Australia and New Zealand to students because of our management of the pandemic. A similar perspective was still being offered by the agents in September 2020. However, in 2021, the UK, Canada and the US are being recommended to International students as study destinations in preference to Australia and NZ, because of the different approaches being taken by our International-Education competitors in managing the re-opening of their countries. A distinct Northern Hemisphere vs Southern Hemisphere story is developing, with the US emerging as a surprisingly attractive destination for International students despite the high COVID-19 death toll, the BLM protests and the polarised political environment.
  • Australia is suffering from “long COVID” in terms of International education, due to:
    • Loss of capacity (Universities winding back degree programs, professional staff support for International students, inhouse English language programs, etc).
    • Transfer of capability, where staff in international agencies with expertise in Australian Higher Education are being recruited by other agencies to represent alternative International study destinations.
    • Loss of advantages that Australia used to enjoy, including Australia-focussed councillors who were tasked with selling the Australian Higher Education “product”, but who are now representing UK or Canadian Institutions (for example).
    • Path Dependencies – International study is often an inter-generational affair, with younger siblings (and other relatives) often choosing to study in the same country as their older siblings.
    • Reputational lag effects for Australia, which will have potential long-term impacts on the revenue available to support research (for example). We have also treated our International student cohort quite poorly throughout the pandemic compared to other countries. For example, International students in Canada who held study visas were allowed to return to Canada alongside residents. The associated negative impressions will impact on our attractiveness as an International student market for some time.

Questions from the Floor

  • Question: What strategies can we use to “dig ourselves out of the hole” that we have made for ourselves?

Response: Our reputation has been damaged to a greater extent than that of Canada and the UK, who saw a relatively rapid return of International students in 2021. In contrast it will probably take 2-3 years for Australia’s International student numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels. In terms of strategies, International students require certainty from our Government about borders, visas, etc. We also need to provide incentives to attract International students to return to Australia, support offshore delivery where appropriate, etc.

  • Question: Can you comment on the impact of other influences, such as the deteriorating relationship with China?

Response: China has continued to pursue a zero-COVID strategy, so they have viewed the world through a different lens to others, which includes safety, low-COVID, etc. This might work in our favour, particularly since Chinese students have been slower to re-enter the international education pipeline compared to others. This could be an advantage for us. Also working in our favour is the fact that Canada and the UK also have bad relationships with China at a Governmental level.

In terms of economic levers through which the Chinese Government might try to exert influence on Australia, it is unlikely that Higher Education will be used in such a way, since the Australian Government does not treat HE with the same urgency as (for example) agriculture or mining.

  • Question: Why would our Government shoot itself in the foot by neglecting the economic importance of International Education?

Response: The “social licence” of International education has been deteriorating for some time in Australia, with many potential factors contributing to this. There were few supporters for International education within our community prior to the pandemic.