Dean Forbes


A presentation to the Australian Education International’s

Future Directions Workshop


28 February 2008

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University

You play with the cards you are dealt.  The business model adopted within a university follows from the kind of university you are in.   Agenda shifts are generally not driven by those who hold international portfolio responsibilities.   Moreover, the pace of change in universities is slow.  As someone - possibly Max Planck - once observed ‘paradigm shifts only occur at funerals’.  Or sometimes the shifts occur with the arrival of a new Vice-Chancellor.

Flinders was an early acceptor of international students.  Its first were Colombo Plan students and others on government scholarships.  Then with the introduction of full fee students into Australian universities following policy changes in 1986/87, Flinders numbers of international students began to increase.  But for the next ten years we achieved little or no growth.  Flinders acquired a reputation for being focused on students from Europe and the US, and not being interested in students coming from the emerging markets in Asia.  This was not totally true, but nor could it be ignored.

A new Vice-Chancellor arrived in late 1995.  In 1997 he decided that he wanted to accelerate the growth of international students, and catch up with growth in universities across the country.  I took up my role in the second half of 1997.  We set a target of international students representing 15% of total students.  But he made it clear – Flinders would not have an MBA.  Moreover, neither the School of Commerce or the School of Business Economics had a particularly strong focus on international students, by comparison with most other Australian universities, and that remained the case until the formation of the Flinders Business School in 2007.

The underlying business model that evolved had three key aspects

1.    We would focus on our niche academic areas where we had strengths, particularly in the health sciences, and the academic leaders who would drive growth.

2.    We knew we had to establish ourselves more firmly in the large Asian markets, but we knew we would struggle to expand our market share from the universities that had established a strong presence, particularly with a limited range of business courses, so we would need to focus on particular parts of Asia.

3.    We were located in the suburbs of a city that had a relatively small share of the nation’s international students.  Therefore we needed to gain leverage by working with other organizations within Adelaide and across Australia.

Some significant features of the business model emerged, beginning with the establishment of an important nursing pathway program in Norway.  We placed a lot of emphasis on scholarship students, the AusAID students in particular, and we have had some good success in this area, with one of the best records in the country.  An example is Flinders success in attracting students through the Australian Partnerships Scholarships (APS) scheme in Indonesia.

We built some strong student support services, including the International Student Services Unit and the Student Learning Centre.

And we established some offshore programs.  This included four largish programs taught in China, with good universities, and a number of smaller, professionally focused niche programs, especially in Singapore (eg in clinical practice, special education, and palliative care)

An important element of our business model is to work cooperatively.  Flinders was a founding partner in Education Adelaide, which was launched in 1998, and continues to actively build Adelaide’s reputation as an education city, with some success.  We derived benefits from the sharing and collective action centered around Universities Australia (or the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, as it was previously known), and the AEI Study in Australia brand.  We also worked with the other universities belonging to Innovative Research Universities Australia (IRUA) in a pragmatic way.  There are opportunities to do more, for example in branding and also in particular activities such as attracting higher degree research students.

Flinders current international student profile differs from the overall national picture.    It is very strong in health sciences, ranging across medicine, nursing, nutrition and dietetics, paramedic, public health and medical biotechnology.  It is also disproportionately large in arts and education.  However, international business students represent less than 20% of the cohort, compared to the national figure of around 50%.  We are also well under the national average in information technology.

Our strategy can be characterized as one of sustainability through diversity.  It has delivered over the last 10 years international student growth of 17% pa on average, compared to 11.7% nationally.  International fee revenue growth has averaged 14% per annum, and never less than 8%.  International students now represent 20% of the total, well beyond our initial target of 15%.

Our strategic directions for the next five years or so will be developed in the course of 2008. 

We will need to increase our focus on sustainable growth.  It will require us to engineer a shift in courses from their supply side focus to be more demand sensitive.  The new Flinders Business School will need to significantly increase the number of its international students.  The University must expand in some other niche areas that I cannot yet identify (ie engineering) because they have not been approved by Council.  Moreover, we have reached capacity in a range of important areas, such as medicine, nursing, nutrition and dietetics and paramedics.  We will need to find innovative solutions if we want to grow in these areas.

We will also need to put much greater emphasis on how we position ourselves in the global knowledge economy (particularly in China and India).  New and refreshed partnerships must be established and new research connections formed.  We will have a much stronger focus on attracting quality higher degree research students.  We must re-conceptualise our transnational programs, making them more fundamentally collaborative, multi-dimensional undertakings.  And finally we must build links around our scholarship and its contribution to the community.  In many cases this will mean identifying how we can work with our communities in the joint production of knowledge.  Ultimately the University’s international program must become more of a giver than a taker.