Australia’s “blueprint for change” for higher education calls for a more diverse and balanced international enrolment – ICEF Monitor

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After just over a year of consultation and review, 820 written submissions, 180 meetings, and a hotly debated interim report in July 2023, Australia’s Department of Education released the Australian Universities Accord Final Report on 25 February 2024.

The report weighs in at more than 400 pages and has been characterised as a blueprint that will guide change in the country’s higher education sector for years to come. As some observers have pointed out, the report’s ambitious scope forecasts the most significant changes in Australian higher education in a generation. “This is a plan not for one budget,” said Minister for Education Jason Clare, “but a blueprint for the next decade and beyond.”

As that framing suggests, the Accord is sweeping in its scope, covering everything from student fees and funding, to research, teaching, housing, student services, international education, and more.

In the broadest sense, the report calls for a significant expansion of higher education in Australia. It anticipates that 90% of new jobs will require post-secondary qualifications by 2035, and sets some top-level targets accordingly, including that:

  • Post-secondary attainment among Australian high-school leavers increases to 80% by 2050 (up from 60% today);
  • University qualification attainment increases to 55% by 2050 (up from 40% today);
  • The number of government-supported spaces in post-secondary expands to 1,800,000 (which represents a doubling of the system’s current capacity).

The report also calls for more integration between Australia’s VET and higher education sectors with streamlined alignment of VET and degree programmes, resulting in a more modular, “stackable” system that allows students to transfer among qualifications and institutions and to build skills through lifelong learning.

It anticipates that this large expansion of post-secondary education will be funded partly by government and partly by the institutions themselves, drawing on the universities’ “untied” revenue sources, such as international student tuition, research funding, and philanthropic donations.

What is the outlook for international?

ICEF Monitor readers may want to skip directly to page 182 of the report for an overview of its findings with respect to international education. The report goes right to the question of diversity and scale at that point, explaining that:

“There has been significant discussion about the size of international student cohorts in Australian universities and the potential for large concentrations to affect international and domestic student experiences. For example, in 2022, international students at some universities exceeded 40% of the total student population: the University of Sydney (47.5%), Monash University (42.7%) and RMIT University (45.0%)…[It is clear that the] social licence to operate international education can become challenging when large cohorts are concentrated in particular classes, courses or providers – especially if there are limited efforts to ensure integration across different cohorts.”

The Accord offers several recommendations for the future of international in Australian higher education, including that government and institutions collaborate to:

  • Better ensure alignment between the courses promoted to international students, domestic labour market demands, and “relevant migration initiatives”;
  • Further expand international enrolments outside of Australia’s major cities;
  • “Support diversification of international student markets within a national
  • strategic framework”;
  • Strengthen alumni networks in students’ countries of origin;
  • “Ensure trust and integrity within the Australian visa system is maintained, in line with agreed recommendations from the Nixon Review and the Migration Strategy; and
  • “Ensure that providers have appropriate risk management strategies for international education” in place.

That last recommendation is specifically concerned with risk management strategies that allow Australian institutions and schools to better manage volatility in international demand, to mitigate concentrations of international enrolment in specific course areas or institutions, and to ensure that students have access to affordable housing.

What happened to the levy on international student fees?

The July 2023 interim report invited comment on more than 70 “spiky” policy proposals, including a levy to be charged on international student fees. That proposal is noticeably absent from the final Accord Report, but in its place is a recommendation for an AUS$10 billion Higher Education Future Fund (HEFF). The Accord sets out that the HEFF would be co-funded by government and universities, with the university contribution coming from “universities’ untied own source revenue.”

While not explicitly tied to international tuition revenues, the funding proposal clearly anticipates a significant contribution from universities’ non-government revenue – making this one recommendation that is sure to trigger considerable debate. Some sector leaders have already weighed in, including University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell, who said: “Taxing universities as they recover from pandemic-induced deficits will take away the money they are investing in education and student experience, creating new knowledge, driving innovation, and providing opportunities and support to underrepresented cohorts of students. In short, a new tax on universities will weaken Australia’s current and future productivity, innovative potential and prosperity.”

“It is perplexing that the only revenue-raising measure proposed is a tax on universities themselves,” adds University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott. “Let’s be clear: universities have been forced to rely on international student fee revenue to fund life-changing and lifesaving research because the relative contribution of the Australian government to the running of universities has dramatically decreased over the past decades…It is a bizarre proposition to suggest that the pathway to improving a chronically underfunded university system is to tax those initiatives that have been used to prop up the underfunding.”

For more on the Accord process, and the reports arising from it, please see this dedicated page assembled by the Department of Education.

For additional background, please see:

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