State of play: Victoria’s international education sector

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

What does the future hold for our international student sector? We hear from the experts.

There’s no doubt Victoria’s $11.8 billion international education sector, responsible for 79,000 jobs, generates enormous economic and social benefits, but we can’t take its growth for granted.

That was the key message from Global Victoria’s recent In-Conversation Seminar, the first in an ongoing series, bringing together experts from government, industry and academia to give insights to Victoria’s public service on global trends shaping the policy, programs and priorities of the work they deliver. At the event, an expert panel focused on the challenges and opportunities facing Victoria's international student sector.

Georgina McCann, A/g Director, International Education, Global Victoria.Kicking off the discussion was Georgina McCann, Global Victoria’s Acting Director of International Education, who crunched the numbers.

"International education in Victoria, and Australia more generally, is seeing unprecedented growth," she began. "From a government perspective, the sector is now recognised as vital to Victoria’s future economic prosperity, and as an important source of employment. In fact, the sector has been the state’s largest services export since 2002 – and since then the value of the sector has grown 559 per cent (from $1.8 billion to $11.8 billion).

"Last year, around 227,000 international students were living and studying in Victoria, accounting for almost one third (32.1%) of Australia's onshore international students. To put this in context, around one in eight of Victoria’s youth population was an international student, and one in five residents in the City of Melbourne was an international student."

As she pointed out: "It’s a significant population – around the same size as the population of Geelong. When we have a population of this size coming to live, study and work in our state, it’s not surprising that the sector is having a profound impact on the work we all do across government. In fact, I’d suggest that international education directly or indirectly affects almost every department, group and agency across government."

Fran Martin, Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne.Stepping up to the podium next was University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor, Fran Martin. Fluent in Mandarin, she’s conducting a five-year study of the experiences of Chinese international students in Australian universities. If you’re serious about connecting with international students, speak to them in their first language and with the channel they prefer, Fran stressed. For Chinese students studying in Australia, that’s invariably WeChat, the all-in-one social media platform.

Study Melbourne and City of Melbourne both have Chinese-language WeChat accounts, and Victorian universities, government, educations service providers and others wanting to connect with the Chinese student market would be well advised to follow suit instead of corresponding in English through Facebook or via websites, according to Fran. "Doing so could set Victoria apart from other states in Australia that are also competing for Chinese students, and even more importantly it could enhance the student experience," she observed.

The event’s third speaker, David Livingstone, is a true global citizen. Before his current role as the City of Melbourne’s Head of International and Civic Services, he ran the global engagement arm at the Business Council of Australia and was a senior diplomat at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with postings in Baghdad, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Ankara, Beirut and Taipei.

David Livingstone, Manager International and Civic Services, City of Melbourne.International education, argued David, is not just about providing quality academic courses. Reputation, responsibility, sustainable policy and support from the host city are all essential to ensure students have the very best experience.

But how do you help make students from overseas feel welcome? In David’s view, by ensuring the quality of student accommodation (perhaps by requiring common social areas in student housing), by advocating social inclusion (for example, by working with tertiary institutions and hosting trips to sporting and cultural events), and by enhancing job skills (for instance, by encouraging international students to apply for internships at the City of Melbourne, which has been shown to contribute to student employability.) And of course, ensuring students know where to access information – about employee rights, résumé writing, tax and visa information – are additional steps the City of Melbourne can help with, he added.

Hope Dolino, International Student Alumnus."International students want an authentic experience. They want to feel supported, to connect, and need activities and opportunities that get them involved in the local community," explained the fourth speaker at the event, Hope Dolino. "They also wonder: 'Will I fit in? Will I make friends? Will I find a job? What career pathways are on offer?'"

Hope asked herself those very questions when she arrived in Melbourne from the Philippines to study at Victoria and Monash Universities five years ago. She’s navigated the workforce with volunteering and casual jobs in order to build on her employability. Hope currently works at software company, Practera, coordinating experiential learning programs. Some of the projects she is involved with are available to international students, including the Study Melbourne Live Projects: three-week, team-based extracurricular work experience projects. The projects are all about providing opportunities and empowering international students and helping them build skills and connect with the local community, while organisations (such as Victoria Police) get tangible outcomes.

Jeffrey Smart, Director and Co-Founder, The Lygon Group.The final speaker Jeffrey Smart, Director and Co-Founder of The Lygon Group, has held senior international education roles over 25 years at Swinburne University of Technology, Monash University and the University of Melbourne. He shattered some persistent myths, particularly related to the capacity of our education and training sector to continue to accommodate growth in international student numbers. In fact, he noted there’s plenty of capacity across the sector – with universities, TAFEs, private providers and some schools keen to grow their international numbers.

"Melbourne is Australia’s fastest-growing city: it’s a more lively, thriving, 24-hour city than it was just a decade ago. Despite occasional media speculation, international students are not the cause of congestion in the CBD. Even international student enrolments in inner Melbourne of 182,908 in 2019 is a relatively small contribution. Congestion is a multi-factor inevitability of living in one of the world’s great cities."

Jeffrey also noted that regional providers in particular have capacity to attract greater numbers of international students, taking advantage of the new post-study work rights visa bonus. Geelong has 70.23% of all international enrolments in regional Victoria, while Ballarat comprises 18.65 per cent, and Bendigo only 2.24 per cent. Universities with campuses in regional Victoria plan to grow international enrolments, which will have a positive impact on local economies and communities.

Sifting out the facts from the myths, this event gave insights into what is one of Victoria’s most important sectors. The range of speakers offered the audience varied perspectives on the international student experience as well as providing expertise into how the education sector will look in years to come. Given the positive audience response, it’s clear this new In-Conversation series is off to a promising start.

Global Victoria’s Georgina McCann on the International Education strategy

The Victorian Government’s International Education Sector Strategy identifies the key strategic areas to enhance the student experience, support exports and job growth and help deliver quality education services. Georgina unpacks the top five messages from within the strategy:

  1. Study Melbourne Hub, Hardware Lane, Melbourne.
    “In 2018, there were over 9,600 visits to the centre, and staff assisted students with over 2,200 enquiries. It provides a safe and welcoming hub for all international students, and offers a comprehensive suite of services, programs and events to connect international students to Victoria's community and industry – including access to free legal advice, face-to-face case management in languages other than English and professional development programs.”
  2. International Student Welfare Program.
    “The state government has committed $5 million for projects that improve student wellbeing and address topics like workplace exploitation, mental health and safety. To date, the program has supported 104 projects that have engaged over 207,000 international students. One of the projects recently funded through the program was the Future Female conference – the first conference to focus on the over 100,000 international women studying in Victoria.”
  3. The Lead. Intern. Volunteer. Experience (LIVE) initiative.
    Delivered in partnership with the education sector to improve the connections international students have to Victoria's community and prepare them for their future careers. “A key pillar of the LIVE initiative is Live Projects, which help international students gain employability skills and stronger social connectedness."
  4. Victorian International Education Awards.
    “Presented by Study Melbourne and shining a light on Victoria’s best and brightest international students, alumni, domestic students and providers involved in internationalisation activities.”
  5. Global Education Service Manager Network.
    “The Victorian government has nine education service managers in priority markets around the world who provide on-the-ground support to Victorian education and training institutions. They play a pivotal role in diversifying our source markets and in positioning Victoria as a global partner and destination for education, training and research.”