Home | International Education | Regional Australia broadens choice and value for international students: opinion
Professor Helen Bartlett. Photo: Federation University Australia

Regional Australia broadens choice and value for international students: opinion

International students are a major contributor to the rich cultural diversity of Australia’s higher education population and Australia has achieved an enviable record as a desirable student destination. Tertiary education now represents Australia’s third largest export sector and growth in international student numbers studying in Australia is predicted to continue in the short to medium term. International student numbers in Australia reported by the Department of Education and Training currently total 626,988, likely overtaking the UK as the second top destination in 2018. This is undoubtedly a positive news story with immeasurable benefits to the Australian economy, to universities’ financial sustainability, graduate outcomes and soft power diplomacy. The key factors attracting students to Australia include its high-quality reputation, choice of courses, work opportunities and local support available from family or friends.

Metropolitan universities are the destination for the majority of international students, with just 3 per cent ending up in regional areas. Concerns have recently been expressed about the consequences of large international student numbers for inner cities, such as congestion, crowded transport and shortage of rental properties. International students have also raised a number of problems that they experience, including loneliness, difficulty making friends, cultural differences, racism and safety.

To address some of these issues, Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently proposed to reduce the concentration of international students in Australia’s inner cities by channelling more students to regional universities where there is capacity. While this proposal has generated contrasting views from across the sector, the potential of regional universities was already recognised in the 2016 publication of Australia’s National Strategy for International Education 2025, which recommended that Australia should “attract more international students to regional communities by promoting internationally the excellence and the advantages of education, training and research in regional Australia”.

Many regional universities already have a long history of attracting students from all over the world. So, what has regional Australia got to offer international students? Do regions benefit from their presence? Which models work best to internationalise regional universities? Can they increase the Australian value proposition to the international student market?

What brings international students to regional Australia?

While the motives of international students studying at metropolitan campuses have been well researched, the experience of those studying at regional campuses is less understood. A range of factors that differentiate the regional experience of international students from that of their metropolitan peers include the conducive environment for study, smaller class sizes, lower cost of living, quality of life, greater opportunity to be involved in the community and improve their English, and safety. For postgraduate international students, many of whom are accompanied by their families, the regional option can prove even more attractive.

A number of regional campuses have become known for their specialty courses which are attractive to international students. Mining engineering has a long history at Federation University Australia (FedUni) from the days of its predecessor establishment, the School of Mines (founded in 1870), which admitted its first Asian student (from Malaya) to study mining in 1951. The sizeable Asian student population at the School of Mines was supported by either private means or through Colombo Plan scholarships. Today, the university attracts students from as far as Mongolia to study its Master of Mining degree.

Similarly, the university’s brewing courses are unique to Ballarat and have attracted international students, including Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw – now an Indian billionaire entrepreneur, and chairperson and managing director of Biocon Limited, a biotechnology company based in India. She graduated with a Graduate Diploma in Brewing in 1974 and went on to become a Master Brewer.

Other factors that are perhaps less well appreciated are the unique partnerships that many regional universities have formed with local industry and business, providing valuable and innovative work-integrated learning. At the FedUni Technology Park both domestic and international students can gain work experience in an international company such as IMB, which has an established professional practice program in IT and business. Over 60 per cent of IBM employees in Ballarat are graduates from FedUni, and of these a significant number started out as international students. There are many cases of Indian students who completed this program and returned to live in the region and work with IMB.

Scholarships are also an incentive for international students and special University Foundation Scholarships have been awarded by FedUni for humanitarian purposes, including to support Karen- Burmese refugees with their studies in nursing and social science at the university’s Wimmera campus. In the small nearby township of Nhill in western Victoria, these refugees now make up 10 per cent of the town’s population and 18 per cent of the workforce, where they are largely employed in the large Australian poultry company Luv-a-Duck, contributing to boosting the regional town’s population and economy.

While regionally based universities may be less known for their research, they have focused strengths in key areas such as agriculture, food agility, mining rehabilitation, regional development, digital health and marine science. At FedUni such expertise attracts PhD students from across the world to undertake research into issues faced in their home countries. Many of these students retain research connections once they graduate and return home, or stay on to contribute to the local research capacity building.

Partnership models

Australian universities have enjoyed a long history of successful partnership-working internationally. As FedUni has evolved over the years into a multi-sector, multi-campus institution with locations across Victoria and Brisbane, like many other universities with regional origins or regional campuses, internationalisation has become integral to FedUni’s strategy. In 2018, over one-third of the university’s total student population of 22,000 is international. How has the university achieved this?

On-shore partner providers have been a major strategy for growing international student numbers to boost revenue and promote the university’s brand. The University of Ballarat, FedUni’s predecessor institution, was one of the first to adopt a public/private partnership model for accessing the international student market. FedUni now has over 20 years’ experience of working with reputable private providers in three major Australian cities to offer its courses in business, commerce, accounting, IT and technology. While these students study at partners’ city campuses, they are still students of the university and remain connected as alumni once graduated. Expertise of the partners and their knowledge of source countries is relied upon for recruitment and marketing. The partners’ deep connection to students’ country of origin is highly beneficial for positive student outcomes. The FedUni partnerships have worked well over the years and students are satisfied with their university experience. Such established partnerships offer even greater potential for innovative future models of program delivery to international students.

Several regional universities have also established their own city campuses for both domestic and international students as a strategy to improve financial sustainability, increase their profile and broaden their scope. These metropolitan locations, such as FedUni’s new campus in Brisbane, open doors to more international students while still providing a connection to regional Australia. Opportunities for mobility within Australia can be offered in cases where students wish to take advantage of both regional and metropolitan campus environments and course offerings.

Off-shore partnerships for international students who enrol in joint degrees and articulation pathways are another approach for regional universities. After several years of building partnerships with four leading higher education institutions in China involving dual degrees and articulations, more Chinese students are now arriving at FedUni to complete their degrees and common interests are also emerging for research and innovation in technology and environmental sustainability. The University’s Technology Park model complements that of our partners and will help build the global collaborations they are seeking.

International partnerships in the vocational education area are also on the increase and as a dual sector institution, FedUni has recently developed a partnership with a college and an automotive company in China to enrol students for an accredited one-year automotive qualification in Ballarat. These students study English, have the opportunity to undertake work placements at some of the local dealerships and participate in the Worldskills regional competitions. They are accompanied by their teachers who also develop their technical and teaching skills.

All of these partnerships enhance the prospects of regional universities to internationalise through a myriad of arrangements that can create attractive pathways and articulation for students, joint degrees, student mobility, joint PhDs, research collaboration and staff exchange.

Increasing the value proposition 

International students access quality Australian education at regional universities and value their experiences, which adds to the positive reputation of Australian higher education. The contributions of international students to the regions go beyond the economic, enhancing cultural understanding, global connectedness and soft diplomacy through our alumni when they return home.

Regional universities have developed a range of innovative partnership models to become more versatile and open to a wider international market. This creates mutually beneficial and impactful opportunities for students, providers, industry and communities. The Australian higher education offering for international students should not overlook the diverse and rich opportunities that are available for these students to study at any of Australia’s 68 regional campuses, as well as campuses in major cities. International students at FedUni do not identify any major disadvantages to studying regionally and indeed, they highlight many of the unique advantages not available in city locations.

Australia should continue to work on ensuring international students receive the highest quality of education in Australia and the necessary social, cultural and career development support for them to be successful. Regional universities can do this very well.

However, ongoing strategic planning and investment will be necessary to ensure that regional universities increase the overall value proposition of Australian higher education and attract quality international students.

Professor Helen Bartlett is vice-chancellor and president of Federation University Australia.

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