Dean Forbes

Policy Frameworks and Settings

Regional and Global Perspectives for University Sector Policy

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

University Policy Futures Roundtable,

Academy of Science Shine Dome

1 August 2008

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University

The Higher Education Review is to inform the Government of the 'future directions of the higher education sector, its fitness for purpose in meeting the needs of the Australian community and economy and the options for ongoing reform'.   It wants universities that are 'high performing institutions with a global focus'.  So do we all.

The Review of Higher Education Discussion Paper (June 2008) sets out a more limited view of Australian universities regional and global activities.  The focus is on Australia's achievements in attracting fee-paying international students, and the limited success in increasing the numbers of our students going abroad for study. 

To achieve its goals of 'high performing institutions with a global focus’, and to satisfy the universities, the Review Team will need to help create a new vision about the ways universities will operate internationally, and this will systematically embrace a more diverse set of internationalisation activities and changes to the Government’s policy and institutional framework. 

* * *

There is a growing consensus within Australian universities that we are riding a third wave of internationalisation. 

The first wave commenced in the 1950s when Australian universities opened their doors to Colombo Plan students. 

The second wave had its origins in the legislation to allow universities to enroll international full fee students, and led to international education becoming Australia’s largest services export and third largest overall export.

The third wave involves universities embracing more diverse kinds of international strategies that support universities needs to have a stronger and more integral role in the evolving global knowledge economy, while at the same time enhancing their contribution to the wellbeing of their local and national stakeholders.

It will involve a continuing effort to attract international students, but the mix of students will change.  There will be a greater diversity in the disciplines they study; a higher proportion of research students; and greater emphasis on their English language capabilities and grasp of the pedagogies used in Australian universities.  But emphasis on other aspects of international education is growing steadily, and needs to be accelerated.

The internationalisation of universities supports the expansion of our capacity for innovation through the building of international research and scholarly collaborations, as well as attracting talented international research students to the country.  Yet the competition to attract the best students, and to build the links with the new emerging centres of the knowledge economy is white hot.  A more sophisticated national approach to these aspects of university strategy is needed.

Australian students need help to acquire better international and technical skills.  They need more and better opportunities to go abroad on study programs, or to acquire international experience through internships or volunteering opportunities related to their education programs and to their future employability and productivity.  The current mechanisms, such as OS-HELP, the extended HECS loan, and the whole complex raft of Endeavour programs, are too fragmented to be effective.

International students contribute to Australia's skill base through the skilled migration program.  This is sometimes undervalued, and the barriers to them entering occupations related to their skills are slow to break down.  The Government needs to work with the universities, and other stakeholders, to ensure any artificial barriers to employment are removed.

The international alumni of Australian universities are a large and influential group.  The biggest concentrations are in the Asian Pacific region, especially Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong SAR, with fast growing numbers in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and India. The knowledge and skills acquired in Australian universities contribute to the futures of their home countries.  In addition, staff and students from Universities engage in pro-bono micro-level projects throughout these countries.  How can the universities, working with the Australian government, make better use of this network to support capacity building and development efforts across the region? 

International alumni also provide long-term links with Australia and their networks have sustained a 'second-track' diplomacy when formal government relations have been strained.  And in many countries, such as Indonesia, they play an important role in supporting the recruitment of international students.  How can policy-makers work with the universities to ensure these activities are sustainable?

* * *

We in the social sciences have two challenges.  First, ensuring that we are engaged in third wave internationalisation and not sidelined by a focus within universities on science, medicine and technology.

Social science has a particular role in building links in the emerging nodes within the global knowledge economies, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in the Asian-Pacific region, such as China and India.  We have a long record of building understanding of the history of the region, and grappling with its contemporary social, environmental, economic and cultural issues. This is the platform for research cooperation, engagement in supporting the development of Australian and Asian-Pacific government policies, and the commercialisation of our expertise.

Our higher education social science programs also provide many of the fundamental skills for the future of the Asia-Pacific region.  We should never underestimate the significance of the so-called soft sciences and soft skills, or of our comparative advantage in the teaching of these skills.  

* * *

The second challenge for social scientists is to contribute to the formulation of a strategic architecture and policy framework that might be helpful to the strategies of third wave internationalisation. 

Lets start with the resources issue (who’s going to pay?) as this is inevitably put forward as the stumbling block.  The fact is that international education brings in significant funding to universities. If the surplus generated by these activities could be freed up, it would make a major contribution towards funding the third wave initiatives I have described.  However, universities depend on international student funding to offset the shortfall in funding from government.  Sustainable international strategies would be feasible if there was realistic indexation of the mainstream commonwealth funding for universities.

The Government also needs to look at the institutional structures for supporting third wave internationalisation, and the kinds of policies and programs it has in place.  Australian Education International (AEI) is situated within the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR).  Its function is both the promotion of internationalisation and the regulation of international activities.  There is a case for splitting these functions. 

The regulatory role remains important, and needs to be strengthened, but simplified.  I believe that we should openly support the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) in the provision of over-arching quality assurance functions for both the universities and the non self-accrediting higher education providers (NSAIs).  More specific components of the regulatory assurance framework, such as the National Code of Practice (the ESOS Act) and the AusList arrangements for transnational education, also have a role.  The greatest risks are in other education sectors, particularly VET and ELICOS, where private providers are proliferating.  Regulation in these sectors is a state responsibility, and practices vary between the states.  Yet as the New Zealand experience demonstrates, serious failures in a small number of private colleges can have serious consequences across the whole education sector.

The strategic support and promotion of the third wave activities requires a new kind of government input.  The British Council is often regarded as the most effective institution of its kind.  It also runs multi-faceted, third wave activities, through such bilateral programs as the United Kingdom India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI).  Canada has also sustained a model of cooperation between government and universities that is particularly supportive of the role of universities in development and broader community engagement activities.  We need to give much more thought to creating an institutional structure that would best serve Australia’s third wave strategies.

* * *