An analysis of Australia’s first national strategy for international education

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By Winnie Eley
Deputy Vice Chancellor (International and Advancement)
The University of Newcastle, Australia

International education in Australia has, since the early 1990s, been made a public discourse, when education export, income, international students, racism, exploitation, and more recently, value to the Australian economy, visas, and employment for Australians, are being referred to. This article discusses and examines how international education is framed and re-framed in order to create a new phenomenon (or not), in Australia’s first national strategy for international education 2025. It provides an overview of higher education in Australia before moving onto a review of relevant literature in international education to the Australian context, in the last two decades. Critical discourse analysis (CDA) has been chosen as a conceptual and analytical approach in understanding dominance and inequality masked in the national strategy, political statements, and policy changes made by the current ruling party in Australia which has been in power since 2013. No study using CDA in analysing Australia National Strategy for International Education 2025 has been undertaken to date. Fully acknowledging that the research methodology used has its limitations and one’s attempt could be overly simplified, this article, nonetheless, addresses a knowledge gap that is yet to be filled by more robust and detailed studies.

Higher education in Australia

Cognisant of the fact that Australia is a relatively young country with many young universities, this section provides some background of higher education and international education in Australia. Australia’s official name is the Commonwealth of Australia, formed on 1 January 1901, making it a relatively young country of 117 years, despite the fact that the land of Australia has been inhabited by the first inhabitants of the land for thousands of years. Australia’s universities are also relatively young, with only four out of the total 40 of them being established before the Commonwealth of Australia came into existence in the 20th Century. Australia has a relatively high percentage of 25–64 year olds with tertiary education at 49% (OECD, 2017), compared with the average of 43% across OECD countries. The 49% included international students. As far as funding is concerned, private funding makes up 61% of expenditure in tertiary education in Australia, the sixth highest share across OECD countries. The 61% includes the high proportion of international students who pay differential tuition fees, vis-à-vis domestic students. Finally, the demand driven system introduced in 2011 saw an upsurge of domestic students who enrolled at universities and non-university higher education sector. In 2014, over one million students enrolled and one in four of them was an international student. Participation by students from an indigenous background is, by far, dismal, at 1.6% (Universities Australia, March 2017).

To summarise, universities in Australia employed over 100,000 staff (Universities Australia, 2017), accounted for AUD 27.9 billion (94.6%) of the total revenue (AUD 29.5 billion) in higher education services for 2015 (Norton, 2016), in a young country with a relatively young higher education sector, and characterised by an above average of tertiary education participation in OECD countries, reliant on private funding predominantly coming from tuition fees and international students.

Since 2010, all Australian universities have also had to grapple with the impact of an array of factors which have had a negative impact on the recruitment of international students, including a backlash of racism outcry by international students, more specifically, from India; a global financial crisis; the high value of the Australian dollar; and changing government policies on visa processing and post study work opportunities. A paper by Adams et al 2011 chart the history of Australian international higher education from the early days of the Colombo Plan in the 1950s to the development of international education as the third largest export industry in Australia, and articulate an urgent need to develop genuine and meaningful partnerships with universities overseas and international organisations as the next wave of internationalisation.

In addition, the Chaney Report (2013) identifies eight areas with over 30 recommendations to realise the global potential of Australia’s international education, namely, quality education; positive student experience; strong international partnerships; better data analysis; research in international education; improved co-ordination between government policies and stakeholders; integrity in Australia’s student visa programme; and building core markets and diversification of sources of students by engaging with emerging countries.

Internationalisation of higher education and its development in Australia

In this juncture, it is important to delineate relevant scholarly works on internationalisation of higher education in the past two decades, for the purpose of this article. Knight and de Wit concludes that a myriad of terms related in internationalisation such as international education, multicultural education, comparative education, cross-cultural education and global education are expressions used to the development of international issues in higher education. Similar to the internationalisation priorities of many universities around the world, forging connections, going global, developing collaborations and building partnerships, are considered to be building blocks towards a sustainable future for any Australian universities.

Australia apparently received almost 20 times more international students than the number of Australian students who chose to study in tertiary programmes abroad, according to the data from OECD 2013. Knight and de Wit concludes that economic and political incentives drive internationalisation of education which tend to “have a positive effect on technological development and thus on economic growth.” Hence national government scholarships, closely related to the economic argument is the labour market argument, ability to compete with people from other countries and the more one is able to work in an international environment”.

The Australian Government supports many initiatives in advancing outbound student mobility experiences, for example, Endeavour Mobility Grants and the New Colombo Plan. Administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the New Colombo Plan assists universities to prepare students to negotiate a new interconnected world, to pass through a rite of passage, to return home work ready and Asia literate, with ideas to boost Australia’s innovation and productivity to ensure Australia takes full advantage of the region’s economic transformation. Prior to the New Colombo Plan in 2013, one in eight Australians studied overseas during the course of the Australian undergraduate degree. In 2015, it was one in five. The funding commitment made available by the New Colombo Plan, for domestic undergraduate students in Australia, made the sharp growth in participation of outbound mobility possible. In 2015, 11,157 undergraduate domestic students travelled to countries identified as priority destinations under the New Colombo Plan, an increase of 32% on 2014. The top five Indo-Pacific destinations for undergraduate domestic students in 2015 were China (19.3% of total), Indonesia (11%), Japan (9.6%), India (9.2%) and Cambodia (6.5%).

Whilst Commonwealth Scholarships and the Marshall Plan are, perhaps, more well known, the Colombo Plan is one of the post war voluntary initiatives with focus on the socioeconomic development and prosperity for the region. It occupies a prominent place in the history of Australia’s relations with Asia, where it is best remembered for sponsoring thousands of Asian students to study or train in Australian tertiary institutions. Yet, it reached into almost every aspect of foreign policy, from strategic planning and diplomatic initiatives, to economic and cultural engagement. It was at one time, named after the Australian Foreign Minister Spencer but for respect towards its friendship with Asia, been named the Colombo Plan as it is known today. In January 1950, Commonwealth foreign ministers meeting in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s name until 1972), recommended the creation of a scheme under which bilateral aid could flow to developing countries in South and Southeast Asia. By 1954, the seven founding nations of Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Kingdom had been joined by Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, the Philippines, the United States, Vietnam and Thailand. The objectives of the Colombo Plan, according to Charles Blackton in 1951, were to forging friendships, identifying with Asia and economic planning.

One of the many outcomes of the Colombo Plan was some 40,000 young, bright, aspiring, future leaders in South and South-East Asia completed their university education in Australia from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The New Colombo Plan has improved on the original, adding an outward-bound component to the original one-way street, six decades on, at the backdrop of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper 2012. Like the original Colombo Plan, the New Colombo Plan is driven by the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, describes the New Colombo Plan as “… like the original historic Colombo Plan of the 1950s, … all about building people-to-people links and networks of friendships and engagement that will last a lifetime”.

In parallel, Australian Government pushes ahead with its first national strategy for international education, which aims to maintain and grow its market share of international education export. Australia’s international education export is worth over AUD 19 billion to the Australian economy and supports over 130,000 jobs, according to the education minister, Simon Birmingham (2017), making it the top service industry in Australia and one of the top three exports from Australia. On motivations of internationalisation, Altbach and Knight ascertain that one of them is for profits: “Many countries recruit international students to earn profits by charging high fees – including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. International graduate students also provide research and teaching services for modest compensation. International students also spend significant amounts of money in the host countries”. A decade on, their assertion has become a mainstay in Australia. When one traces the literature review back in 1995, Knight and de Wit (1995) rightly observe that “the more foreign students paying a high tuition fee, the higher the economic return and the less the national government needs to invest in higher education.” In Australia, fees collected from tuition, accommodation, services are now a financial necessity to universities to counter progressive reduction and uncertainty of government funding. The income from international education has also become a lifeline for the higher education sector as well as an integral part of the Australian economy.

Kehm and Teichler (2007) on analysis of articles published in the Journal of Studies in International Education (1997 to 2006), note that since the Journal was established in 1997, 160 articles were published from 212 authors located in 28 countries. Its articles during this period have focused on people, not institutions or policies, and an educational thrust is dominant with themes on mobility, internationalising teaching and learning, knowledge transfer, and export of study programmes through online provisions. In one of the articles published in the Journal, Altbach and Knight (2007) expounded on internationalisation which “includes the policies and practices undertaken by academic systems and institutions – and even individuals – to cope with the global academic environment. The motivations for internationalisation include commercial advantage, knowledge and language acquisition, enhancing the curriculum with international content, and many others.” In the case of international education in Australia, commercial advantage dominates the public discourse as observed in the Australia national strategy for international education 2025 which will be discussed further in the next section.

Paltridge et al (2013) recognised the “considerable contribution to social, political, cultural and economic life” by international students to Australia. Their study uses critical discourse analysis (CDA) to show how international students’ participation is commodified and marginalised as outsiders. CDA as a conceptual framework is used to unmask “social inequalities that accompany globalised international education.” The national strategy for international education 2025 is the first ever strategy of its kind in Australia. The strategy was launched by the then minister for tourism and international education in Australia (also the first and since then, only minister for international education in Australia), together with the Australian foreign minister, in front of over 40 ambassadors, in April 2016. In the same launch, Australia global alumni engagement strategy 2016–2020 was rolled out. The national strategy has taken almost three years to develop, further to the preamble of “The new architecture of international education” articulated by the then Australian education minister, Christopher Pyne in 2013. The then education minister pre-empted a national strategy which aimed to “lay out a path to growing a world-class education and research industry that realises our (Australia’s) economic potential, reduces barriers, and frees the sector to be more productive and globally competitive.” Van der Wende defines internationalisation as “any systematic, sustained effort aimed at making higher education (more) responsive to the requirements and challenges related to the globalisation of societies, economy and labour markets”. Australia’s first national strategy for international strategy, seemingly, aims to address exactly what Van der Wende postulated over two decades ago. Its intent is “to ensure Australian international education helps students, communities and industry around the world, meeting their expectations”.

Critical discourse analysis: discourse, dominance and inequality

This section discusses critical discourse analysis as a conceptual framework to understand the links between discourse, dominance and inequality. The original works of van Dijk (1993) on principles, aims and criteria of a “critical” discourse analysis (CDA) form the basis of the literature review on this conceptual framework. Discourse, when used as a verb, essentially refers to how one speaks or writes authoritatively about a topic. The word, when applied as a noun, covers written or spoken communication or debate. Here I adopt the notion of discourse by the work of the French philosopher Foucault who theorised discourse “from an orthodox Marxist perspective, unjust economic relations (structure) generate an ideological belief system (superstructure) that helps to sustain the conditions that gave rise to it.” Discourse, therefore, is “imbricated with power relations”. One of the main goals of CDA, therefore, is to reveal the often opaque workings of power in, and also through discourse. To take a critical approach in analysing texts, talk, and a topic, van Dijk considers its aim is to understand social inequality and injustice by “focusing on the role of discourse in the (re)production and challenge of dominance. Dominance is defined here as the exercise of social power by elites, institutions or groups, that results in social inequality, including political, cultural, class, ethnic, racial and gender inequality.”

Fairclough and Fairclough observe that “an argumentative approach to policy analysis can also provide a new perspective on ‘framing’ phenomena…” Their notion of practical argumentation “is argumentation from problem to solution” which makes the textual analysis relevant to potential improvement on existing treatments. “Practical arguments, according to Fairclough and Fairclough have the following elements:

  • V: a value premise – underlying values and concerns;
  • G: a goal premise – possible and desirable alternative future states of affairs;
  • C: a circumstantial premise – existing states of affairs;
  • MG: a means-goal premise is a conditional form – if a course of action A is pursued, it will (or is likely to) take us from the existing problematic state of affairs C to the desirable future one G in accordance with values V; and
  • PC: attempting to support a practical claim (or conclusion).”
    The practical claim advocates pursuing a particular course of action: taking the means to the goal G is, allegedly, the solution to the problem identified in the circumstantial premise (C).

The practical claim advocates pursuing a particular course of action: taking the means to the goal G is, allegedly, the solution to the problem identified in the circumstantial premise (C).

Sample and method

The data from this study are extracted from the minister’s foreword, benefits and opportunities, and the strategy, in National Strategy for International Education 2025 (Australian Government 2016: v-vi and 6-11), Education Minister’s contribution (Liberal Party, accessed on 15 April 2017), Prime Minister’s Facebook (accessed on 19th April 2017). Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is chosen as a conceptual and analytical approach in understanding dominance and inequality masked in the national strategy, political statements, and policy changes made by the current ruling party in Australia.

CDA is not without its criticism and limitations, from vague theoretical foundation to open and varied interpretation by individual disciplines, ranging from linguistics to pragmatics. For the purpose of this article, there is, undoubtedly, room to further improve upon and extend the study in the near future, as Australia continues to deliberate and deliver the ten-year national strategy for international education by 2025.

Findings and discussion

The two findings drawn from the source data represent one’s analysis of the national strategy for international education and relevant government statements and policy changes.

  1. Australian international education is a tradable goods and a viable product within a resource-based national economy

This goal premise (G) is stated three times in the 58-word first paragraph of the minister’s foreword in the national strategy for international education 2025. For example: “international education offers an unprecedented opportunity for Australia to capitalise on increasing global demand for education services”. The national strategy for international education was prepared and launched at a time when the resources-based economy in Australia was going through a major and steep downturn. Such circumstantial premise (C) justified the need to the desirable future (G) in accordance with keeping Australia in a pole position as a study destination for full-fee paying international students. As such, ensuring Australia’s prosperity and job market remain buoyant despite the downturn of a dominant resource-based economy. This practical claim addresses the direct concern of voters nationally and reinforces the ruling party as a trusted and competent government in job and wealth creation. It legitimises the ruling party for initiating, championing and actioning the strategy. Elites who already have special access to shape the discourse in the national strategy of international education, continue to dominant and influence the strategy, as evidenced in the membership of the coordinating council for international education (2016: vi) to the council for international education set up in 2017.

This goal premise (G) is further reiterated in the benefits of international education for Australia. The value of AUD19 billion which includes fees and associated expenditures by international students was referenced again in the current education minister’s communications on the ruling party’s contribution to Australia, its nationals and its national economy, including creating and supporting more than 130,000 jobs in Australia. The projection of an increase of onshore international students by 45% by 2025, which equates to a staggering increase of another 720,000 full-fee paying is elaborated with key words such as grow, potential, high growth, significant increase in demand. In a transitioning economy in Australia, a promising industry such as international education as a viable goods which is tradable globally, in keeping unemployment rate low and to appeasing voters, championed by a proactive ruling party, would inevitably secure the power and dominance of the party and the elites who are advocates. Throughout the national strategy for international education, there is a whitewash of the social inequality faced by indigenous participation in higher education within Australia. The disconnect in promising a world-class education and a good prospect of employability to differential fee-paying international students versus the dismal indigenous participation in higher education in Australia cannot be starker.

Moving onto a critical evaluation of the practical argument with the aim of considering whether or not “an argumentative approach to policy analysis can also provide a new perspective on ‘framing’ phenomena”, the recent announcement of a change in visa policy by the Australian Prime Minister will be used. In his Facebook, the Prime Minister stated on 19 April 2017: “Hear it here first – we’re putting jobs first and we’re putting Australians first by abolishing 457 visas.” In the midst of a major drive to attract international students from India, and at the back of a 100-delegate strong ministerial delegation, the Australian Prime Minister announced the abolition of a particular visa type called 457. The announcement generated mass social media backlash in India particularly, with the subtext that Australia did not welcome foreign talents travelled far and wide from China to North America. The announcement is aimed at national voters who are in favour of popularism. It is made with no understanding that universities in Australia depend on research talents including those from India who, often times, are research students on 457 visas and work as research assistants and are key sources of research publications in the Australian higher education sector. Universities Australia published two media releases headlined “new visa rules must ensure Australia’s universities remain open to the world” and “Australia’s universities remain open to the world’s best mind”, on Universities Australia website dated 19 and 20 April 2017, respectively. The new phenomenon for the university sector in Australia is the awakening that the federal administration is acutely uneducated towards the potential of international education and its value to Australia. Hence the dedicated and energetic effort is therefore, essential in taking parliamentarians in office and in opposition, through an educative process of the importance of international education to Australia. For the ruling party, the new phenomenon is the importance of learning apace, about the largest service sector in Australia and the third largest export from Australia.

  1. International education is a competitive business and the sector needs the Australian government to drive and steer it for its success

The circumstantial premise that international education is a competitive business and Australian international education is a superior goods is evidenced in the minister’s foreword: “Australia already has a well-deserved reputation for the quality of our education and research.” Throughout the national strategy for international education and the current education minister’s statements on his personal home page, there is a strong emphasis and reiteration on how competitive international education is. Hence, for Australia to remain a leader and increase market share, the sector needs the Australian Government who holds the key to pull levers such as visa policy and free-trade agreements. The goal premise is to ensure that through the “strategy, together with the long-term market development roadmap, Australian International Education 2025, signals the sector’s and the government’s commitment to work together to advance international education by identifying new products and new opportunities for expansion, and building on our current presence in existing markets.” The words, “we”, “our”, “Australia”, “the (Australian) government” are referred to, more than 50 times. The practical claim and conclusion is the government must “embrace the role as a driver of change”, in order for the Australian international education to “withstand increasing competition and sustainably grow our market share.” While the strategy acknowledges the education sector’s role, it reiterates the “clear role” for government in pulling policy levers in order to ensure policies are “mutually compatible and internationally competitive.”

It is worth noting in this juncture that the Australian higher education sector has been actively engaging in international education before the first national strategy for international education was launched in May 2016. The histogram in table 1 below shows international students load, both onshore and offshore, across all Australian universities in 2013. Three key observations can be noted: 1) There were 21 universities which achieved over 25% international load; 2) There were six universities placed between 22nd and 27th and all of them achieved more than 22% international load; and finally, 3) The gap between universities which achieved below the 20% widened significantly in the descending pecking order.

Table 1: international students load across all Australian universities in 2013

Source: https://www.education.gov.au/higher-education-statistics

Australia’s first national strategy for international education was introduced by the current government which failed to pass a higher education bill which aimed to cut university funding by 20% for three consecutive years in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The government has endeavoured in a strenuous manner, to play its core role in the national strategy for international education, despite the determination to slash university funding and to satisfy business demands from private education sector. As such, the university sector, which has major stake in international education, has to drive the growth agenda aggressively and to collaborate with the government that holds the policy lever of visa changes.

In the six paragraphs elaborating on benefits to Australia, we, our Australia and government are used in excess of 20 times to reiterate the significant difference Australia’s government could make through the national strategy through its leadership and its steer. The elites mentioned above continued to have privileged and pre-dominant access to the discourse. When examined whether or not the practical argumentation analysis has resulted in a new perspective on “framing” phenomena, one perspective seems to be consolidated in this finding, that is, the Australian government believes it holds the key to success in international education and its role is inimitable.

Conclusion

The international education sector in Australia has a relatively short yet intense history. From educating talents post-war through the Colombo Plan in the 1950s to 1970s, through to managing education as a superior and tradable goods, to countries which have unmet demand in the past three decades. In its first national strategy for international education, using critical discourse analysis and specifically, practical argumentative analysis, Australia’s national interest to continuing trading education seems unstoppable. The employability problem presented by the government rationalises the goal premise of treating Australian international education as a tradable goods and a viable product within a resource-based national economy. In the process, the need for policy makers to become knowledgeable of a sector which the government set out to support is exposed through uninformed actions of its parliamentarians. Another circumstantial premise that international education is a competitive business globally and the sector needs the Australian government to play a core role for its success (goal premise) is certainly argued well in Australia’s first national strategy for international education.

Australia’s national approach towards international education aligns incredibly well with four out of the five economic and political rationales summed up by Knight and de Wit (1995:10-12), in particular, the financial incentives to the higher education sector in the midst of public funding challenges. The Australian government, through a carefully crafted national strategy, managed to argue and augment an obvious role for the government in steering its influence on the public discourse. The ruling government has certainly been consistent with its public discourse on this subject between 2013 and 2017.

Australia is not the only country which has a national strategy for international education. The UK, Canada, New Zealand and more recently The People’s Republic of China (under its 13th Five-Year Plan) have devised their national strategies for international education. Research in internationalisation and international education in the past two and a half decades cover a wide array of topics. Moving forward, and given the financial implications of international education in public discourse in governments, applying critical discourse analysis and specifically, practical argumentative analysis in understanding and unmasking individual country’s rationales, national contexts and actors will enrich the knowledge gaps in international education.

At The University of Newcastle (UoN), Winnie takes on strategic leadership of the university’s global engagement and representation; institutional partnerships and reputation; alumni relations and philanthropy; sponsorship and student mobility. She is an appointed auditor for the Quality Assurance Committee (2014–2019) of University Grants Committee in Hong Kong. She is a member of the International Academic Advisory Committee for both QS-APPLE and QS-MAPLE. Winnie has volunteered, studied, lived and worked across continents from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania to the United Kingdom. She has spent the last two decades advancing education participation, devising international and institutional strategy, and refining associated whole-institution approach and associated systems in strategy execution.