For anyone working in the international education sector, its value as an export and cultural benefit is clear. Those outside, particularly local communities, however, aren’t as aware. Gauri Kohli looks at how countries are promoting the benefits of international education to the wider population.
International education is thriving as an export industry in countries such as Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada, going beyond being just a catalyst for economic success. As top destinations for international students, these nations are understanding that the true value of international education lies in the positive impact on people, communities, businesses and the knowledge sector.
Some have launched campaigns to educate the general public about these benefits of international education. For instance, recently, the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) launched a unique campaign to showcase that in addition to economic contributions, the advantages that international education and students bring to the country include cultural and societal development. Sharing inspiring stories of international students collaborating with Australian businesses and communities, the campaign focuses on how such partnerships contribute to the country.
Taking the lead, state promotional bodies, Study NSW and Study Queensland, jointly invested in the campaign. Its focus is on three outstanding international students – Patti from Bangkok, Ralph from Dubai, and Jerry from Jakarta – who showcase the ways international students contribute to their societies.
Patti, for instance, excels as a mental health counsellor and dedicates her time to teaching dance classes, creating a positive effect on mental well-being within the community. Ralph’s valuable work in old-age care shows the meaningful roles international graduates play in key sectors. Meanwhile, Jerry’s efforts in organising fellow students to assist with fruit picking during labour shortages demonstrate the active involvement of international students in coping with national challenges.
Similarly in New Zealand, Education New Zealand (ENZ) took the positive step in 2019 of educating small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) about the unique benefits of hiring international graduates. A joint report by ENZ and insights agency TRA revealed that employers’ perceptions of international graduates vary significantly depending on whether they have prior experience in hiring migrant workers.
Employers who had previously hired international graduates viewed them as valuable assets, while those who had not, perceived them as a risk. It suggests that employers share their positive experiences and normalise hiring of international graduates to promote wider acceptance and understanding.
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted shifts in attitudes toward international students among Australian and New Zealand citizens, according to a 2021 survey by IEAA and ENZ. There is increased sensitivity towards the practical hardship international students face, such as living away from home and experiencing social isolation.
To bridge the gap, the report recommended implementing more structured peer-to-peer support within educational institutions. Such support systems would enable domestic students to gain insights into the experiences of international students through shared studies and interactions, fostering a more inclusive and supportive campus environment.
Addressing the challenge of international students being perceived as taking opportunities away from domestic students, ongoing campaigns aim to dismiss these misconceptions and highlight the genuine benefits that international education brings to host countries and their communities.
Another example is that of a campaign in May 2023 by Universities UK International (UUKi), a sector body representing more than 140 UK universities. It relaunched a 10-year-old campaign called #WeAreInternational, which aims to improve how welcoming the UK is as a study destination as perceived by international students. It also aims to improve the levels of positive sentiment towards international students and international education in the UK media and with UK politicians, through communicating how valuable the contributions of international students are to the country.
UUKi recently released a report on the costs and benefits of international higher education students to the UK. The report includes a breakdown of economic value by constituency, and received significant and sustained media coverage across local, national and sector press. It has also been shared extensively across the UK government. It demonstrates the immense economic contribution internationals students make – almost £42 billion for a single cohort – and the distribution of this across every region of the UK. Further, UK public polling undertaken by UUKi earlier this year demonstrated that public perceptions are already positive, where only 9 percent of respondents thought international students and researchers should be discouraged from coming to the UK.
According to Andrew Howells, assistant director, UUKi, who has lead numerous national level, sector-wide campaigns, “Whether it’s a doctor or nurse from another country, trained in a UK university and working in the NHS; an international graduate developing the tech to detect breast cancer early; international students volunteering in university towns and cities during COVID-19; UK universities twinning with Ukrainian counterparts; or the thousands of other examples of how international students, alumni and staff enrich our society and culture… The campaign is telling this story, empowering the voices of international students and bringing the sector together, to communicate how international students make the UK, society and the world a better place.”
It is a surprise to most people not within the sector to learn that education is usually a top 10 export. There is often some pushback claiming that international students are taking domestic students’ places or jobs.. However, Dr Allan E Goodman, chief executive officer, Institute of International Education, US, has a different view.
“We believe access to international education provides a gateway to opportunity, builds economies, and fosters a more secure and equitable world. One of the industries that define American prosperity, goodwill and strength on the world stage is education,” he says.
“The US has plenty of space to welcome more students from abroad. The capacity at US higher education institutions exceeds that of the rest of the top 10 hosting nations combined, offering an unparalleled variety of fields of study and majors. International students are important contributors to the communities they join.”
According to the US Department of State, international students, whose volume crossed the one million mark for the fifth straight year in 2019-20, added over $39 billion to the country’s economy in 2020, and supported 415,000 jobs.
Elaborating on the impact these campaigns have in terms of promoting international education, the industry, to the general population, Dr Goodman says national campaigns illustrate the many opportunities that are available to students worldwide. For the US, such initiatives highlight the diversity of the country’s higher education system and students’ ability to connect with each other on different ideas and perspectives.
Governments, too, are aware of the importance of international education. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted the value of international education to the country’s economic prosperity, national security and diplomacy, besides and its leadership in research and innovation at an EducationUSA Forum a few years ago.
Blinken told the US international education sector, comprising 4,000 colleges and universities, that they can “count on” the Biden-Harris administration to do everything “to make your work easier”.
Universities Australia, the peak body for the sector in Australia, believes that international students are back and the focus should be on keeping them in the country.
“We expect that export income data will soon show an improvement in response to students returning, edging us closer to the pre-Covid $40.3 billion economic contribution,” says Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia.
The income international students bring to Australia supports thousands of jobs, boosts wages and lifts living standards right across the country, besides the important university research it helps fund, so international education as a sector must be well-accepted by the general public.
“Despite the strong numbers, we are not maximising the longer term returns our comparative advantage offers,” Jackson says. “Very few of the international students we educate remain here after they graduate – only 28 percent use their poststudy work rights in Australia and just 16% go on to become permanent residents. COVID-19 has underscored the urgent need to stop the talent exodus and ignite our economy with more skilled workers.”
In Canada, due to the aging of the country’s population, in the next decade, immigration is expected to account for 100 percent of net growth in the workforce. As per the country’s International Education Strategy 2024, international students make excellent candidates for permanent residency as “they are relatively young, proficient in at least one official language, have Canadian educational qualifications, and can help address this country’s current and pending labour market needs, particularly for highly skilled workers.” As many as 53,700 international students became permanent residents of Canada in 2018, contributing as productive and valued members of Canadian society.