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International students - clients, customers or cash cows?

Are international students customers, clients or cash cows?

Attracting, retaining and delighting international students is a major challenge for WA’s universities, writes Ruth Callaghan, who recently moderated the CEDA higher education panel of vice-chancellors.

It was a lengthy question from the floor — one that passed through the territory of query into the plains of ‘making a point’.

Why, the questioner wanted to ask the five vice-chancellors on stage at the recent Committee for Economic Development of Australia higher education conference, was it that when his business referred international students to Western Australia they didn’t last long?

Why did they want to move on to other states?

Why did they not get the same treatment in Perth as in Melbourne where a red carpet was rolled out?

What was the point, he asked, in attracting new students from overseas if WA universities couldn’t retain the ones who came?

The question(s) are uncomfortable ones, not just for Western Australian universities being questioned but for higher ed institutions across the country.

And they reveal the tension that exists between seeing the international student cohort as a cash cow – providing a welcome injection of funds for institutions – and seeing them as individual students who want the best education Australia can provide.

The numbers game

On the face of it, Australia is undergoing an international student boom.

The number of international students studying in Australia at our universities, private colleges, specialist courses and other higher ed institutions, was up 12 per cent in January this year to more than 565,000, with total enrolments in June as high as 645,000.

China is the main contributor to those numbers, but India, Nepal, Malaysia and Vietnam also feature strongly, while Brazil is a growing market.

Why do the numbers matter?

Well, international students in NSW alone contributed $10 billion last year to the local economy. International education is now our third biggest export after iron ore and coal and the income generated by international fees overtook Australian student income back in 2015 and continues to grow.

Yet the proportion of those students heading to WA is less of an obvious success story. Australian government figures show WA’s June 2018 total enrolment of international students is 38,627 — about 1500 fewer enrolments than the same time in 2017 or 2016.

On a national level, that means WA, with about 10 per cent of the population, has a share of less than 6 per cent of international enrolments.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Universities are doing better in WA than vocational education and training (VET) institutions or what are known as ELICOS (English language intensive courses for overseas students). The growth in numbers among WA universities may be small overall but there is also a lot of variation.

Murdoch University is third-highest in the country for international intake, with around two in every five of its 24,000 students from other nations. Curtin, WA’s largest university with more 50,000 students, has nearly 30 per cent of its cohort as internationals.

UWA has more than 20 per cent and ECU nearly 20 per cent, while Notre Dame University has the lowest international student numbers in the country at just 3 per cent, although it has many students who study abroad as part of their degree.

Opportunity knocks?

So should WA universities be doing more to entice international students in their doors? Well, yes — but it needs to be for the right reasons.

WA’s four public university vice-chancellors agree that having international students is vital for their ability to operate effectively, with the income international students bring helping to support their broader educational objectives.

They also recognise international students add a depth and diversity to their classes and that students from all countries — Australia included — benefit from an internationally relevant and cross-border education.

But as Notre Dame Vice Chancellor Celia Hammond put it passionately at the CEDA forum, you cannot lose the focus on the individual student in the debate over how to shift in another thousand or two thousand internationals in or around WA.

Universities had to stop thinking of internationals as clients or customers — she argued — because they were first and foremost young people in search of learning opportunities that would transform their lives.

They weren’t going to come to WA just because there was a statewide push to boost numbers; they would come (and stay) only if they felt welcomed, could access rich local experiences, enjoyed their studies and felt valued for their own selves, not for the revenue they brought.

Get that experience right and the numbers will look after themselves.

Ruth Callaghan is Cannings Purple’s Chief Innovation Officer and has more than 20 years’ experience working in journalism and media strategy.

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