The happy sounds of 40,000 Chinese students humming ‘I’m leaving on a jet plane’ in unison as they head towards the airport is enough to soothe the heart palpitations of many a university administrator.
The news that the Chinese Government will not continue to recognise the international degrees of students who continue to study at home is, far more importantly, good news to many students - waiting for the right moment or the right permissions to come.
The arrival of Chinese students is also good news for others. The guardians of Australian institutions, who will welcome a return to times resembling the days before COVID. Australian students and lecturers who benefit from a greater diversity of conversations and perspectives in classes; for the students themselves who have struggled nobly with online learning but who will benefit from immersion in classes and Australian life, and for Australian employers, who now have thousands more casual students to work in cafes and future graduates to work in key roles across the sector.
The two groups I really do feel for are the Chinese parents, who must suddenly foot the bill for expensive airfares and accommodation that weren’t on their horizons; and the students who didn’t really want to leave home, and have had to uproot their lives with little notice.
Anyone who has travelled internationally, or for that matter searched for a rental in Australia recently knows that transport and accommodation costs can be way beyond inflation - which may mean that a minority of students seek to defer or transfer to cheaper options. Lower fee providers with accommodation rooms available are in a good position to snag some student transfers in second semester this year, after students have arrived, settled and had enough time to freak out over their rent bills.
On the surface, the arrival of students onshore may not mean much to the bottom line – students already enrolled will be on campus instead of online, and mostly paying the same. But in practice, it’s a game changer for the sustainability of recruitment.
We need high quality student experiences now so that future students will hear that Australia is a great place to live and study. We also need culturally diverse, global perspectives and networks to enable opportunities for Australians and Australia in the global economy. Blended classes and online learning have been challenging for staff and for students and bringing thousands of students back into the classroom will breathe life back into classes and campuses.
We have known for well over a decade that the Chinese government can deny students the opportunity to study in particular markets overseas with the stroke of a pen. The beautiful wave of thousands of Chinese students who should be warmly welcomed to our shores in coming weeks can recede just as quickly if international relations deteriorate. Canute demonstrated a millennia ago man’s incapacity to alter the tide, but we appear slow to learn. Instead there is a danger that myopic international student recruitment and engagement strategies will again ignore lessons of the past and leave institutions exposed, relying excessively on one or two markets and failing to invest in long term, more sustainable source country diversity.
The interruption to the flow of Chinese students led to a long-overdue recalibration of national and institutional foci to re-examine how we can build stronger links to India. The effort that has gone into kindling stronger ties with India will not displace the focus on China but should mean in the short to medium term that Australian institutions have at least two major geographic regions of focus for international student recruitment, partnerships and engagement.
In practice, we need to rapidly progress to a much more sophisticated approach, so that we don’t just have two pins stuck in a map and largely ignore the rest of the world, but start to build markets that are sustainable and diverse.
International recruitment forecasts will now look for more rosy, but should not be taken for granted. Every institution and particularly the Government study promotion bodies should be focusing on authentic and personalised campaigns that get back to relatives in China showing how good life can be when international students get to set foot into Australian classrooms. The potential to rebuild an authentic brand for Australian education through a sincere and warts and all welcome back campaign is immense if only we can resist the retreat to the same old agencies with the same old soulless campaigns of airbrushed student bots with fixed smiles and choreographed feet stepping onto campus.
This is a great chance for higher education providers to revisit the way they speak about international students and to roll out a new welcome mat. Our communities are far better for having international students onshore, improving perspectives and discussions in classes, shopping at corner stores, renting apartments, working in casual jobs, and having the chance to share ideas and energy with Australian students and staff on projects that can make the world a better place.