Oz one out for students
The Economic Times, May 16, 2024

By Pradeep S. Mehta and Amit Dasgupta

On May 11, Australia announced that it plans to introduce legislation to set an allocation for the maximum number of new international student enrolments education providers can offer. Universities and colleges will have until the beginning of 2025 to prepare themselves for a cut in foreign student numbers..

This decision has caused consternation not only among leading universities in Australia but also among potential international students. The overseas student population in Australia reached an all-time high of 671,000 in March, a 15% increase on the previous year. A section of Australian media has referred to this development as a 'soft cap'. Soft or hard, it's a cap..

The rationale behind the proposed legislation is unclear, though the Anthony Albanese government says it is to maintain integrity and sustainability of the sector. What can be inferred is that the government would like to crack down on dodgy education providers, agents and students. Nobody disputes the need to do this. But limiting the number of aspiring and qualified international students defies logic. Indeed, it is also unfair, as it suggests that one size fits all..

The argument that unprecedented growth in the number of international students has put the housing market in Australia's big cities under strain and raised rental prices is also unfounded, according to Property Council of Australia, which debunked the government's reasoning. It bears mentioning that minister of education, Jason Clare, acknowledged the importance of international students when the proposed legislation was announced.

International education reflects extraordinary soft power because:.

It creates Australia champions among non-Australians. Students become goodwill ambassadors for life. It also enhances the quality of international education through a truly global learning experience..

International students are a major source of revenue for education providers and the economy. Universities Australia, the representative body for the tertiary sector, said 'certainty, stability and growth' were needed in future policy. It said international education contributed $48 bn to the economy last year. That's more than half of Australia's economic growth.

While there was a slump during the pandemic years, international student enrolments are back to pre-pandemic levels, with promise of further growth that could establish Australia among the top three preferred choices for higher education.

Reaching this status has taken over a decade of hard work and extraordinary outreach. Why would the government wish to throttle the goose that lays the golden eggs? The motives are confusing and unclear. Implications for the market and signals that it sends are, however, clear.

Perceptions matter greatly. Indian students are undoubtedly worried because:

Australia has rapidly become a sought-after higher-education destination. Despite high cost of living, some Australian universities offer top-quality education.

Work-study rights enhance the living experience in a multicultural environment. This year also saw a significant diversion of Indian students to Australia from Canada.

In fact, 2024 would have seen a record outflow of Indian students to Australia. The proposed legislation will undoubtedly impact this negatively, as students are not starved of choice. The Australia-India Economic Strategy would also be adversely impacted, as it places a high premium on collaboration in the international education sector.

One can only speculate on the thinking that prompted this extraordinary announcement. The messaging has gone wrong because it has triggered fear and confusion. That the government has said that it is open to consultations is a welcome development.

There is a simple maxim in management - it takes years to build a brand and only minutes to destroy it. Rebuilding the brand takes much longer. Brand Australia on the international education front is certainly facing a grave self-goal from this proposed legislation..

Purely going by speculation until and unless Canberra clarifies, the proposed legislation appears to be aimed at curbing migration. For the government to introduce such legislation is unthinkable considering that Australia is a land of migrants and multiculturalism is a part of its DNA.

On the international education front, it will kill Brand Australian. For aspiring Indian or other international students, there are other destinations available where they would not be seen as a liability. Furthermore, a few Australian universities are opening campuses in India, which would undoubtedly gain in the process, but not if the proposed legislation goes through without caveats. The Aussie government needs to rethink this decision..

(Mehta is Secretary General, CUTS International, and Dasgupta is former Consul General of India to Australia.)

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