06.07.2022How to rebuild Australia’s reputation as a world-leading international student destination

Australia’s reputation as an attractive international student destination was tarnished during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The raft of federal economic measures delivered to support the community did not include international students; they were encouraged to ‘make their way home’ instead.

Our ‘closed door’ policy has had far-reaching impacts. A global survey of education agents revealed Australia to be well behind Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) on the metric of ‘open and welcoming,’ with the country’s reputation as a study destination at an all-time low.

Competitor countries that supported their international student cohorts with moral and financial backing have benefitted at Australia’s expense. In the UK alone, university international student enrolments were up over 30 per cent year on year in 2021.
Other decisions taken throughout this period have had consequences. Melbourne’s long and grueling series of lockdowns caused or exacerbated educational, financial and mental health challenges for international students. This did not go unnoticed in key markets.

Australia needs international students. They will help make our cities and regions vibrant, support jobs and industries, and work across all sectors during their studies and afterwards – with the right immigration policy settings – high-skilled positions afterwards. They will help develop breakthroughs in science, technology and research, and to ensure we remain globally connected and relevant.

With the national border open, we must consider the step-change needed to attract strong international education market share and to utilise the skills of these individuals to help grow the economy. Two areas that government authorities could focus on include immigration policy and job opportunities.

Australia’s aging population will act as a handbrake on economic growth over coming decades. To remain young and prosperous, we need a migration program which attracts young, talented people trained in professions that will help grow emerging industries. There is no better place to look than at those we are training at our own tertiary institutions.

Immigration policies that target growth in specific sectors could be considered. In Benchmarking Melbourne 2022, Melbourne ranked 15 of 18 peers for the proportion of the population employed in technology intensive industries and 14 of 17 peers for the share of home-grown tech-enabled companies that are in science and engineering industries. Policies that help retain foreign students that excel in these areas is essential.

Australia’s visa system is relatively accommodating to foreign students. Eligible bachelors graduates have full working rights for two years, master graduates three years and doctoral graduates four years. Students who have studied and worked in select regional areas may be eligible for an additional one to two years of full work rights in those regions.

The UK’s new Graduate Route allows international students to work or search for work for a maximum of two years for bachelor or three years for doctoral, while Canada has the most attractive post-study visa framework. Their Post-Graduate Work Permit allows students to work there for three years if their application is successful. Once approved, students can apply for permanent residency.

For Australia to improve its competitive advantage in the international education market and spur economic growth over the long-term, the Federal Government could extend the length of the Post-Study Work Visas to four years for bachelor and masters degrees and five years for doctoral degrees, and consider simpler pathways to permanent residency and citizenship.

Increasing the opportunities for international students to access meaningful work is a second area requiring focus. Greater willingness of professional organisations to employ international students upon completion of their studies will burnish Melbourne and Australia’s attractiveness, and boost productivity.

Work Integrated Learning (WIL) units, where students apply their skills in a workplace and receive academic credit in return, provide invaluable experience and networks for students. Expanding opportunities for foreign students to participate in WIL units will benefit them and participating organisations, which can increase their organisational diversity and talent pool, help them access the unique insights and, in some instances, open market opportunities.

Having a deep understanding of growth industries and identifying talent requirements would improve links between these students and industry. With a skills shortage across most economic sectors and a looming skills crisis in critical sectors, including healthcare and technology, ensuring we train and retain international students in these areas is critical.

Australia needs the skills that international students develop during their studies to drive productivity across the economy. Talent retention is critical. The Federal Government could incentivise international student uptake of specific study areas through course subsidisation or tax incentives, and set the right migration policy settings that allow international students to gain meaningful employment in Australia’s growth industries following their studies.

For further information, contact Leanne Edwards at ledwards@melbourne.org.au or Brett Van Duppen at bvanduppen@melbourne.org.au

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