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When the pandemic first struck, the University of South Australia’s international student team didn’t waste any time. “We flipped all of our recruitment into the digital space,” says Gabrielle Rolan, Pro Vice Chancellor of International UniSA. “That really was about replicating virtually what we would normally be doing, like taking academic roadshows into country and dealing with prospective students.”

While they worked with their agents and partners in multiple countries to achieve that, their strategy also included significantly boosting content and frequency for about 150 tailored email campaigns, a decision made off the back of a recent IDP survey that revealed international students wanted more regular (and relevant) contact.

Putting their email campaigns “on steroids” was extremely successful, says Rolan, although students would tend to ask the same two curly questions: when will we be coming back, and what will quarantine look like? “We didn’t have answers to either of those, but it was really about, how do we still keep up our engagement with both our students but also our key partners – our agents."

UniSA is part of the Australian Technology Network (ATN), a group of five universities that include Deakin, Curtin, RMIT and University of Technology Sydney. Priding themselves on being “real world universities focused on enterprise, impact and finding solutions to issues facing our economy and society” ATN universities have been well placed to embrace agile strategies that include digital learning, offshore partnerships and transnational education.

“Our universities have a slight advantage,” says ATN Executive Director Luke Sheehy. “We're better at online, we're better at digital. But we have to be because we're more in the disruptive space.”

Judging by comments made recently by Education Minister Alan Tudge on Australia’s international student education strategy it’s clear that the Commonwealth wants to see innovations and expanded offerings in digital and online learning, as well as greater diversity in terms of where students come from.

From a policy perspective, Sheehy says ATN wants three outcomes. First, the Commonwealth needs to continue to work with the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) to consolidate changes to the permissible amount of online study, which were changed temporarily last year when the pandemic hit. “We have to ask for those not only to be extended for the next cohort, but they need to be extended for the current cohort, who we expect to be anywhere between 12 months and 18 months offshore.”

In a complex arrangement, it will be crucial for the Department of Home Affairs to also be involved so students can be issued visas despite not being on Australian soil. “It doesn't require substantial funding from the Commonwealth but it does require some flexibility in terms of the application of regulatory rules,” he adds.

Second, Sheehy says ATN is calling on the Commonwealth to provide a national plan for the return of international students and more collaboration with the states, given the complexities around visas and international borders. “We'd like to see a little more energy put in from the Commonwealth around how they might coordinate some of that, because it's an important industry for the country.”

Sheehy says it would be highly beneficial if the Commonwealth could fast-track how and when they might reach a consensus around vaccine passports for international students, too. “That's going to be tremendously important."

And third, he wants the Commonwealth to consider transnational education as an important future growth pathway. “Curtin and RMIT have around half of their international cohort offshore already. How do we look at that as an opportunity for growth, using the expertise of the ATN universities in the future? It’s certainly something that the Minister has flagged as having interest to him.”

In Western Australia, Director of Curtin International, Barbara Lung, says her university is already well placed, given its diverse international student cohort and transnational focus. “We have campuses in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius and Dubai; we've got very strong links into Sri Lanka, as well as into China, Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Indonesia. We have quite a large amount of activities happening with teaching and learning and also preparing students to, at some point, progress onto a Curtin degree, whether it's one of the campuses offshore, or here in Australia.”

Although the pandemic has put pressure on international student recruitment and increased competition, Lung suspects Australian universities may have been suffering from a case of complacency. “We've been very lucky. We've had temporary work rights, it's a fantastic study destination, we've been welcoming, and there's been a lot of international students, quite a diversity of that. I think we've got to slightly reset and really concentrate on the student experience.”

Back in South Australia, Gabrielle Rolan is hopeful the pilot project to bring 300 international students into the state (delayed earlier this year due to outbreaks in Adelaide and Victoria) will go ahead in coming months. It’s crucial, she says, that those students who are very near to graduating and who require practical placements (in allied health or teaching, for example) either be allowed back into the country or have their placements accredited by Australian regulators overseas.

Despite all the uncertainty, she says anecdotally the international students she talks to are “on pause” rather than giving up on an Australian degree. In good news, she says there could even be quite a large pent-up demand. “But it will all depend on when we get some certainty around how [returning to face-to-face learning] might work. So, yes, at this stage, I'm still reasonably confident that we will start seeing some recovery. We'll have the seeds of it this year and hopefully start seeing a better recovery next year."

Sophie Tudor19 April 2021