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Continuity, contradiction or crash? Unknowns in the international student market

Anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen to Australia’s extraordinarily valuable international student market is having you on. They can’t know, because it will all depend on things that haven’t happened yet. 

We don’t know what will happen to the virus. Will there be a vaccine, and if so when? Can you catch it twice? Is it only a matter of time before it spreads all round the world, meaning that we are actually at an early stage? 

We don’t know what will happen in international relations. Things are tense at the moment, but cooler heads might prevail. A US election year isn’t the best time for cooler heads. 

We don’t know whether differential responses to the pandemic by key countries really have a major effect on their domestic economies. 

We don’t know what our typical competitor countries for international students will do.

And so on.

We can, however, think in scenarios and start to organise the possibilities.

One could be called the Continuity scenario. It might take some time, and we won’t go back to exactly what was the case before, but in the scheme of things this scenario is that we will be back to business as usual in a year or two. The fright might even help us make improvements which were harder to justify when the going was good.

Another is the Contradictory scenario. Here, many things change in different directions, in complex and contradictory ways. Some markets contract. Some expand. Some are more price-sensitive. Some are less. Some think more highly of Australia, some less.

The third is the Crash scenario. In this scenario, it turns out that the long-held view is correct that international student mobility is driven by rising GDP in countries with young populations and insufficient domestic provision at the quality desired by their expanding middle classes. In this scenario, the GDP in those countries is not rising at all, and their governments decide to invest in domestic provision to keep the currency at home and rebuild their nations.

My guess is that the Continuity scenario turns on the length of the disruption. The longer it goes on, the greater the impact and the less likely we could return to yesterday. Australia currently wants to open its borders, and provide convenient two-week quarantine facilities to arriving international students (paid for by universities and state and territory governments), but if second waves appear, the world’s mentality may return to lockdown.

The Contradictory scenario seems the most plausible. The effects of COVID-19 are so wide-reaching and still unknowable that the combination of uncertainty, imperfect knowledge, different risk appetites and differential impact make it unlikely that there will later be a simple explanation of cause and effect.

Crash does seem possible but the least likely of the three. A lot would have to go wrong for Australia, and that mysterious force called sentiment would have to sweep the world before the end of international student mobility, for us or anyone, could occur.

If this is a reasonable analysis, we ought to think about improvements we would want anyway in a Continuity scenario. We ought to consider how we can change so as to emerge a winner in a Contradictory scenario. And we should at least ensure that our domestic education system is strong should an international crash occur.

Areas for attention include the overall business model for international students, the products and prices on offer and the efficiency of our education system.

A sceptical view of the business model for international university students amounts almost to a Faustian one. The most surplus is extracted from them, and the service offered is at the lowest cost, so that the margin can be harvested for research and capital projects. This simply can’t go on. It’s an uncertain basis for the nation’s research effort and the dubious ethics of it might well come back to haunt us. Two decades of charging what the market will bear has led us to become reliant on too few countries. Economic development has been uneven, and we have focused on the countries at the forefront of it, with middle classes that in historical terms suddenly had more money.

Add in to all this what might be thought of as a sleaze overlay. Australia relies on recruiting agents more than any other country. Some of those agents are players in the Australian student accommodation and property markets. They can’t be supervised sufficiently. And somewhere in all this students arrive with English language scores that appear to be sufficient on paper but which don’t appear to enable them to engage academically or socially in English. It needs cleaning up. The obvious route is through institutions doing their own selection of students, by video, using data and analytics, and taking responsibility for it all.

The products on offer are tired, and presented in the old way. Too many lectures are dull. They are mostly watched online afterwards. Small groups comprise too many of the students’ fellow nationals, and they have been declining in frequency anyway as part of the soft gouging that has occurred.

If fees are to be brought down, to price in the middle classes of more countries and to enable us to play the long game, the cost base of institutions needs to be reduced significantly. Almost every other sector in the economy and society has been undergoing digital transformation and embracing new operating models. Universities’ ways of working have not changed significantly, although surplus labour has been extracted from insecure contingent workers.

We can devote the time to think about all this, if only from the time saved in commuting and travelling by air, neither of which turns out to be as necessary as we used to think.

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Monique Skidmore has been a deputy vice-chancellor international at several Australian universities.

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  1. absolutely spot on, excellent article

  2. An excellent article by Monique Skidmore although I disagree that the crash scenario is the least likely, having witnessed the literally overnight drop in applications following publication of lower rankings of our education system some years ago. One omission is the consideration of the benefits and disbenefits to the Australian students and population of the mass of overseas students. The large numbers from a couple of countries and their generally poor levels of English sharply reduce the opportunities for productive association between the overseas and local students. Reciprocal understanding and long-term friendships across that divide are far fewer than with a more balanced intake. The Australian students and Australia fail to benefit when these longer term understandings and friendships are absent.

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