There’s no sugar-coating just how disruptive the pandemic has been on Australia’s higher education industry. Billions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost, not to mention the untold impact on industries traditionally reliant on international students.
In recognition, the federal government is currently developing a new national strategy for international education to respond to the upheaval and help guide the sector’s recovery.
While it can be tempting to look to the future with rose-coloured glasses and imagine that international students will return to Australia in the pre-pandemic numbers that buoyed the industry for so long, the truth is we don’t know how long – if at all – it will take for that occur.
Without being able to bring students to the education, the forthcoming strategy needs to consider how we can bring the education to the students – no matter where they’re located.
In short, the strategy must be built around a hybrid approach that builds connections with international students as they study in their home countries remotely, and then encourages them to come to our shores as soon as they’re able.
This doesn’t mean just organising lectures via Zoom and giving students a virtual place to meet. It requires building a pedagogical foundation where digital ecosystems amplify engagement for international students and creates an online student experience that sets Australian universities apart from global competitors.
Digital delivery of international education
Throughout the course of 2020, Australian universities rapidly transitioned to digital campuses that allowed students to continue studying remotely.
One of the key lessons learned during this period was that a lot of what we previously thought could only be done in a physical space could in fact be done online.
Not only did higher education institutions invest heavily in technology to make the impossible possible, they also devoted considerable resources into the professional development required for educators to build their online pedagogy. We can’t let this go to waste.
As part of the new international education strategy, universities and other post-secondary education providers should be encouraged and incentivised to build on all that was learned during the pandemic to attract international students to study with them remotely.
The lure of a pre-pandemic Australian education included the natural beauty, sun-kissed climate, and welcoming culture that makes Australia one of the best countries in which to live. In the digital realm, we need to develop an engaging online experience that similarly differentiates us from international competitors.
Despite vaccination programs both here and abroad, it is impossible to tell when international travel will resemble something even remotely close to pre-pandemic times. Borders may reopen, but will the confidence of international students keep the same pace? We must therefore focus on building connections between overseas students and our onshore campuses until they are in a position to travel, and we are in a position to receive them.
In any remote learning program, student engagement and satisfaction are absolutely fundamental to success. In recognising that remote education can be an isolating experience if not done well, digital campuses need to ensure they provide students with an online community where they can engage with their peers and enable educators to provide students with feedback and content in multiple formats. As well as provide educators with the data and analytics they need to ensure students are progressing with their learning journey.
Incentivising international returns
Another key element in making Australian universities more attractive in an increasingly competitive market is improving the student’s ability to gain employment both during and after their studies.
Introducing a national framework of recognised micro-credentials will go a long way in this regard.
Micro-credentials can help develop a stronger attachment between Australia and the international student. The recognised skill acquisition will assist with simplifying the ability to gain work experience when they are able to travel and pave the way for future employment. Simultaneously, such a strategy would help attract the best global talent with in-demand skillsets needed to continue our post-pandemic recovery.
Developing a nationally recognised micro-credential framework would not only assist international students in gaining employment in Australia after graduating, it would also greatly benefit our domestic student cohort.
Recent research from the Foundation for Young Australians found more than three-quarters (76%) of young people believed they did not possess the relevant vocational and practical work experience to gain full time employment. A nation-wide micro-credential framework developed in partnership with the private sector, focused on building real-world skills through work-integrated learning, would ensure all students – domestic or international – have the job-ready skills they need to rapidly enter the workforce and promote a culture of lifelong learning.
Remote reality of international education
While remote learning has clear benefits to aid in attracting international students to Australian universities, it also provides multiple advantages for domestic students.
With work now increasingly remote, authentic learning requires it also be delivered remotely. For example, white collar jobs now – and into the future – will be increasingly remote, teachers will need to learn how to educate remotely, and doctors and health practitioners will need to be familiar with telehealth consultations.
Not only can premium digital experiences build strong connections with potential international students, but they can also help support the next generation of Australian workers develop the skills they’ll need to thrive in a workforce unlike anything that has come before it.