As an industry we imagined that the benefits to Australia of our activities and the presence of international students in our institutions and society are self-evident and as a result, we haven't focussed the necessary energy on arguing our case. I, like many others, observed the xenophobic pronouncements on migration from all quarters in the recent federal election and was deeply disappointed. Bruce Baird recently noted how the Australian Government would willingly support an ailing (and strategically insignificant) car industry but would not dream of considering any form of help to international education to weather the storm. Even though visa changes have played a key negative role. I believe an important difference in the way we are politically considered is international education's well-educated, white-collar workforce can be expected to re-train if need be, and there is not the concern in the community of loss of employment that accompanies any prospective problems in a "blue-collar" industry.
So what can we, as individuals, achieve to turn this around and get the positive vibes following again?
When we have conversations with people outside of our industry, we've got to start converting people to our cause and explain the basics time-and-time again. There's a need to get the simple messages out and not get bogged down in arguments about the rights and wrongs of higher education funding - important for sure, but no political side will change this set of circumstances so it's all in the realm of the hypothetical. In my conversations, I try to stay away from discussing the financial benefits where possible but I do make sure I get in the following points:
- International students, through the funds they contribute, help Australian students access more courses, they never "take" away available places in higher education. Yet 50% of the general population believe this!
- Very few international students will actually migrate permanently to Australia (10-20%) - regardless of our attitude to increased migration or the future size of Australia's population; we should have nothing to fear by having them as guests in our country for a few years.
- Just because the Government undervalues and underfunds Higher education, and Universities look to gain revenue from international students, that's not a reason to decry the quality and value of the educational experience that such students gain in Australia.
Normally, I'm pleasantly surprised how easy it can be to change opinions once these are explained - but I have had to work hard on some occasions...
Just think, if 125,000 people just spoke to 10 people that's a million people on our side.
Let's get to it.