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OPINION: HOW INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS BENEFIT AUSTRALIA

In 2010, then British Prime Minister David Cameron uttered a few fateful words that would become an own goal for the British economy. He announced a policy to cap 'net' migration to Britain – but lumped international students on temporary visas in with permanent migrants. It began a series of policy mis-steps and careless utterances by senior political figures that included cutting work rights for international students, Brexit and the rise of anti-global sentiment.

The result? Since 2012, the number of international students choosing a university education in Britain – and spending money in the local economies in which they study – has basically flatlined.
Who has benefited from this carelessness? Australia.

The British-based Centre for Global Higher Education now predicts Australia will leapfrog the UK to become the world's second most popular destination for international students by 2019.

Higher education had good news in the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull's commitment to the international student market last week. But there is much work still to be done.

Having world-class universities means we attract the world's best and brightest, who make our communities more vibrant and put money into local economies. The jobs of a plumber working on a new student apartment project in Moreton Bay or Western Sydney - or a bus driver in Melbourne or Adelaide or Perth – rely on international students. A 2015 Deloitte study found they support more than 130,000 full time jobs here. Britain's loss is our gain.

They also internationalise the education that Australian university students get. Our students learn with classmates from the US, Singapore, India and China, expanding their insight and forging lifelong friendships.

We know 84 per cent of international students do return to their country of origin. That opens doors for Australia in the decades ahead – in trade, diplomacy and national security alliances. Think of a vast network of people like Indonesia's former Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa – Australian educated – who put the bilateral relationship between our nations on a better footing. There are thousands more like him.

The small portion of international students who take up limited work rights after graduation also make an important contribution. This is not an unfettered right. Only a small portion meet the stringent requirements for permanent migration – and they are brilliant and highly-educated people.

Another factor in Australia's success has been strong bipartisan support and whole-of-government backing. Our Council for International Education includes all six Ministers whose portfolios can influence our ability to attract students – Simon Birmingham, Julie Bishop, Steve Ciobo, Michaelia Cash, Karen Andrews and Alex Hawke. This is the envy of our economic competitors. Only this week, the British Council's Michael Peak observed: "The recent growth in numbers in Australia is due in large part to implementation of an ambitious, 10-year, national strategy that was widely consulted on with all education sectors and across Government departments." He urged the UK to follow Australia.

As we have built this success story, some have occasionally fretted about an alleged 'over-reliance' on international students. This is muddle-headed thinking. It is a self-made national success story that benefits all Australians. Who in the iron ore industry sits around fretting about an 'over-reliance' on foreign buyers? No-one. They're getting on with the job of nurturing and diversifying markets for their services. And so are Australian universities.

In doing so, universities also make a big contribution to Australia's foreign policy aims and soft power diplomacy. The Turnbull Government's Foreign Policy White Paper reflects this. Instead of hand-wringing about a handful of classroom exchanges in recent years when Chinese students promoted a Chinese worldview – only to have their Australian lecturers respond with an Australian one – we should see this for what it is. A vigorous exchange of views. And that's what universities are all about. This helps, rather than hinders, our future national security.

And we must always keep the pressure up on quality. Governments in our region are investing heavily in their universities. Universities in Asia are beginning to move upwards in global rankings. Australia cannot afford to cut funding here – or we risk an own goal ourselves.

Catriona Jackson is Chief Executive of Universities Australia. She will be part of a panel discussing how to improve university performance measures at the AFR Higher Education Summit, August 28 and 29, in Melbourne.

As published on 13 August 2018 in the Australian Financial Review.

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