International student changes could harm fabric of our economy

Productivity and innovation are key to Australia’s future economic prosperity; neither are possible without international students. 

Last Updated Wednesday 3rd July, 2024

Now more than ever it is critical that the business community gets behind the international education sector during the current public debate about students, immigration and the housing crisis. 

There are some significant initiatives underway at a national level that stand to bring about positive change in the sector, but there is no doubt that we are at an inflection point for international education as debate grows about the impact of international students on broader economic challenges. 

The recent Federal Budget, legislation to set maximum enrolment limits, and the Opposition’s Budget reply, which called for a dramatic cut to temporary migration, have thrown the spotlight on international student numbers. Faced with this environment, it is important that we properly scrutinise the benefits and risks of all the proposals currently being considered and proceed with caution with any major reform. 

There is unanimous support among international education leaders that integrity and quality standards are paramount. Applying a framework that addresses the integrity challenges that have emerged is critical.Similarly, international education’s contribution to Australia’s skills needs must underpin the framework because we cannot provide the current - and future - workforce we need in fields as diverse as aged care and renewable energy without it. 

International students are a talent pool who are an existing talent pool in Australia and have the qualifications and skills that match hundreds of occupations experiencing the greatest skills shortages. And the benefits of diversity and new perspectives to drive innovation in the workplace have been well documented.  

It is important to remember that the international education sector is broad – it’s not just universities. It involves schools, vocational education and training, English language colleges and pathway colleges. The sector is complex, and it is integral to everything Australia wants to achieve in its economic future – including its Future Made in Australia agenda. 

It’s the job of organisations like StudyAdelaide to promote Australia as a destination of choice for international students. Increasingly, it’s also our job to sell the importance of the sector to our own community. 

International education was valued at $48 billion last year, representing more than half of the country’s economic growth. The return of students in one surge following borders reopening may have magnified its sudden impact, but the fact remains that the sector has positive flow-on mpacts on jobs, skills, tourism, the volunteering sector, and the vibrancy of our communities. 

It is extraordinary that hands are hovering over policy levers that could put the brakes on one of Australia’s top exports (and in my home state of South Australia’s case, the number one export).  The Federal Government has lowered migration forecasts and foreshadowed setting limits on international student enrolment numbers. The Federal Opposition says this hasn’t gone far enough. 

There has been a chorus of concern both from within and outside the international education sector on what the more drastic actions being flagged could do to Australia’s international education reputation and economic return, let alone the damage to Australia’s workforce ambitions and global standing.Just a few years ago there was widespread alarm at the economic loss caused by students being shut out due to closed borders. We need to ensure we don’t return to this same situation in a year or two by sending a message that Australia is not open to talented students. 

There is increasing global competition to attract international students to longtime favourite and emerging study destinations and Australian education providers must remain competitive on the world stage.  With Australia’s reputation at risk the impact will flow from the international education sector to the national economy. When businesses can’t find employees with the right skills, the nation’s productivity will take a direct hit. 

Nobody is saying that the housing crisis isn’t terribly real for many Australians, but it is something that has emerged over decades as a result of many supply, demand, and policy factors that cannot be solved overnight. The blame should not rest on the shoulders of international students.  

Decisions on migration and enrolment limits that do not consider the complexity of the international education sector could irreparably harm not only a thriving industry but also the very fabric of our economy. 

Jane Johnston, Chief Executive, StudyAdelaide 

Published by CEDA 25 June 2024 


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