Has Knight arrived in time to rescue Australia's academy?
Simon Baker on the hoped-for impact of reforms spurred by an official review of student visa policies
The recent easing of Australia's visa restrictions on overseas students could usher in a "third wave of international education" in the nation's universities, having established government support for the sector via an "affirming" message that resonated abroad, the outgoing chief executive of Universities Australia has said.
But for many in the sector, the question is whether the benefits stemming from the Knight review of Australia's student visa system will feed through fast enough to remedy the financial damage from a sharp decline in international numbers.
By recommending a reduction in red tape and an enticing new post-study work option for international students, the review is seen by many to have boosted Australia's attractiveness as a study destination and wrong-footed competitor nations - especially the UK, which currently seems to be heading in the opposite direction.
More importantly, many believe it has sent a signal that Australia is open for business after a period in which more stringent visa rules and bad publicity presented a negative picture to potential students from abroad.
Glenn Withers, who steps down as chief executive of umbrella group Universities Australia this month, is in no doubt about the positive effects of the review, led by former Sydney Olympics minister Michael Knight.
"The release of the report, and the government's positive response, received strongly affirming coverage in the international media and through agent and informal networks," he said.
"The review was very important because it showed that the government recognised the significance of the international education sector to Australia, while signifying that (it) is committed to working with the sector to protect the interests of students, universities and other providers."
The key question now is whether the announced changes will boost Australia's flagging recruitment of overseas students in time to stem the resulting loss of jobs and income at universities and other education institutions such as vocational colleges.
The latest figures on education exports in Australia, published last month, showed the need to act fast. The value of fees, goods and services purchased by foreign students dropped to A$15.8 billion (£10.5 billion) in 2010-11 from A$18.5 billion the previous year, according to the International Education Association of Australia.
The states of Victoria and New South Wales - which together have almost half the country's universities - each lost more than A$1 billion in that period.
But although on this evidence, the reforms outlined by the Knight review are urgently needed, the problem is that the earliest some of its proposals will be implemented is the second half of 2012, with the post-study work visas introduced only in 2013.
Change is coming - but when?
Agents recruiting international students for Australian institutions are not optimistic about the chances of a quick upturn.
"Changes being made by the government to the visa system are making Australia a more attractive destination for international students, but we don't expect to see a clear turnaround in the offshore market for at least a year," said Warwick Freeland, general manager and chief strategy officer at international student-recruitment agency IDP Education.
Recent visa-application statistics from the Australian government show the fragility of the market. In the three-month period ended September 2011, "offshore" applications by international students to all types of institution were up 5.2 per cent compared with the same period in 2010. Demand from India had more than doubled.
However, these rises were measured against very low base levels recorded in previous years when demand had been hit. Also, figures for applications based on yearly totals for September showed that the market had yet to pick up.
In addition, much of the overall boost in visa applications came from students already living in Australia and attending English-language or vocational courses - a pool that is still on a downward trajectory. Enrolments at institutions offering such courses were down by more than 15 per cent in the year to October 2011.
The same enrolment figures showed that higher education had grown very slightly, by 0.8 per cent, but Dr Withers said this was tantamount to flatlining compared with past expansion.
"We are not yet seeing a full turnaround across all education," he said, "and 0.8 per cent is much less than the 8 to 10 per cent growth that was experienced by higher education over a long period."
He said drops at English-language schools would also "feed through" to keep growth modest for some time yet.
Vice-chancellors are also very aware that it may be too early to see signs of any recovery for the sector, but Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University, said that the indications were that the changes made in the wake of the Knight review had already been well received in key markets such as India and China.
"The new visa scheme will be more advantageous to students than any of its predecessors. For example, students will have the ability to stay and work for a period at any job after graduating," he said.
But Professor Schwartz suggested that the sector would need to broaden its mix of overseas students to avoid hits to demand in any one country causing significant damage to Australian recruitment.
"Australian universities will remain overly reliant on a few key countries, which makes their revenues subject to large international forces beyond their control," he explained.
Dr Withers said that other factors may prevent a recovery in demand that would return Australia to the dizzy heights of international recruitment of a few years ago.
These included keen competition from other English-speaking nations, the growth in domestic and international higher education in source countries such as Malaysia and China, the impact of another economic downturn, and the continuing strength of the Australian dollar.
"It is most important therefore that the sector focuses on providing a high-quality education and experience to international students - including ensuring a safe and positive environment in which to study," he said. "It is not simply about numbers at all and we are no longer the cheap option - we need to convey that Australian universities are a high-quality option for students."
Importing academic talent
One way Australia may hope to bolster its appeal is by attracting academics from hard-pressed universities in the UK and the US.
Australian executive recruitment firm Crown & Marks said in a report last month that the country had an "unprecedented opportunity" to become a net importer of academic talent "as United States Ivy League and United Kingdom Russell Group universities slash budgets and staffing".
However, convincing prospective international students that Australia has reversed its past reputation for poor support, an unwelcoming local population and high staff-to-student ratios may prove trickier than capitalising on the easy marketing boost provided by the Knight review.
A damning report on the treatment of international students conducted by an independent ombudsman for the Australian state of Victoria suggested that business concerns were still being put before student welfare in some cases.
The report - tabled in Victoria's parliament in October 2011 - suggested that universities "need to shift their focus from recruiting students and boosting their revenue to ensuring their international students have the necessary skills to study successfully".
Dr Withers reiterated that future expansion of overseas student numbers needed to be based on priorities other than getting as many students into lecture halls as possible.
"There is still much to be done within the sector to effectively communicate our strengths and the unique experiences we can provide to international students, and to ensure a process of continuous improvement is in place," he said.
He insisted that improvements were already in the pipeline, including enhanced campus accommodation, better student services and the internationalisation of the curriculum within university courses. This, combined with the changes to the federal government's visa policy, meant Australia could be optimistic about the future of international recruitment.
Dr Withers said: "A commitment to focus on a third wave of international education that is based on good growth, but which is also richer and deeper educationally and which also encourages Australian students to study abroad more, does now seem achievable. We are back."