International students

How Australian universities could stop inequality and save the planet in one easy move

To address the global inequalities in access to higher education, I propose an Australian-led network for global online learning. A collaboration of Australian universities would offer online education to low- to middle-income populations, at large scale and low cost, with long-term benefits for future enrolments and global soft power.

As an example of global inequalities, access to higher education in Africa is one quarter of the global average. The importance of improving the education standards of the population to Africa and other regions with poor access does not need to be stated.

Australian universities are over-reliant on overseas student fees. This was demonstrated by the Covid pandemic which led to at least a temporary reduction in student numbers, with possible long-term loss of overseas students. The dependence on China as a source of international students is also a risk, given variations in geopolitical priorities. Given these concerns, the current policy whereby universities cross subsidise other activities such as research from overseas student fees is risky and likely to be unsustainable. Using student fee income from low-income countries to support universities and the broader economy in high-income countries such as Australia is unstainable and of questionable ethics. 

The Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 is completely focused on the economic benefits to Australia from bringing international students to Australia, with no mention of the potential to reduce global inequalities in access to higher education.

Looking to the future, global populations will change. By 2100, Nigeria will have a larger population than China. Half of the current African countries will have doubled in size by 2050

Offering education that is clearly focused on building capacity in low- to middle-income populations rather than on earning income for ourselves own would likely raise the profile of Australian higher education and have future benefits in attracting students. This would also have the potential for more general soft power impacts. The Australian Government does offer scholarships for international students, as do many individual universities, but these are highly competitive and do not include online courses. They constitute only a small proportion of the large number of more than 450,000 overseas students who come to Australia each year.

My recent open access book, The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education, makes the case for a pivot from face-to-face to online education. There are many opportunities that this would create, including for education to be offered to a global audience at scale. 

An important consideration about bringing international students to study in a high-income country is the resulting high carbon footprint. This arises from travel and higher consumption patterns. My colleagues and I recently showed that a small cohort of only 128 international students who studied online rather than travelling to the UK for a master’s programme saved nearly a million kg of CO2, even without counting the contribution from their exposure to the physical university with its large carbon footprint.

I propose a programme which would increase global access to education – a network for global online learning. The driver, rather than to generate income from overseas students, would be to increase access to education among those in low- to middle-income countries where access is currently low. Student fees would thus have to be lower than at present. This can be justified by taking a long-term view of potential benefits to universities and the host country as discussed above, the realisation that the costs would be marginal as universities could utilise courses already in existence initially, and the suggestion that each partner need only provide part of the programme. A small increase in the amount of money the Australian Government and individual universities currently spend on scholarships could support such a programme. 

At present, universities compete with each other for international students, due to the competitive business model under which they operate. The creation of a network for global online learning focused on international students would depend on universities having the courage to collaborate rather than complete, to realise the power of collaboration. 

Although research is a more common area for collaboration, there are a number of examples of universities collaborating to offer education,  The Biostatistics Collaboration of Australia is an excellent example – students can enrol in, and graduate from, any of five Universities and access a common online curriculum. This approach differs from Open Universities Australia whose main task appears just to help students find appropriate online courses at Australian universities. Universitas 21, a global partnership which includes four Australian universities, offers a global online (non-degree) programme co-produced by a number of universities with an external partner.

What would the network for online global learning look like?

  • Australian universities would collaborate with each other as the key drivers of the network. 
  • Ideally other universities in the Global North and South and other ‘industry’ partners such as Non Governmental Organisations, and relevant governments and ministries would join the network.
  • Degrees would be offered by each University or created by a combination of courses from different network partners.
  • Students, as individuals or groups from industry partners, would enrol in award streams through a university of their choice even if the programme is made up from courses from a number of providers. 
  • Start with just one or two subject areas of relevance to those in the Global South, as proof of concept, and if successful build to scale. 
  • Develop an infrastructure to include IT support and a light touch quality assurance process.

A great deal more work is required to explore the potential for the idea of a network for online global learning. I call on interested parties to come together to think about this. Maybe Open Universities Australia or Universitas 21 would take on this challenge and lead the kind of collaborative network I have been describing?

Richard Heller is Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Newcastle, Australia and Manchester, UK. He has been involved in educational programmes to build pubic health capacity in low- to middle-income population throughout his career. In Newcastle this was through the International Clinical Epidemiology Network. As Professor of Public Health in Manchester he set up the University’s first online master’s degree. On retirement he founded and coordinated the fully online volunteer led Peoples-uni educational charity, offering master’s and continuing professional development awards. His recent open access book is The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education.

Challenges facing Australian international graduates transitioning into the Australian labour market

The employability of international graduates has emerged as a key challenge facing the Australian higher education sector. International students now seek to acquire international work experience to complement their foreign qualification and build a career portfolio that will ensure access to global and home country labour markets. Post-study work options are now a major determinant of study destination.  However, despite the importance placed on gaining discipline related work experience, many international students struggle to gain local work experience due to limited local networks, lack of knowledge of the Australian labour market, poor understanding of the job application process and weak communication skills. These are some of the key findings of research carried out by Deakin University as part of an Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project in partnership with IDP Education Pty Ltd.

While initially the study sought to consider the employment outcomes of Australian international graduates in areas of skill shortage (nursing, engineering and accounting), it occurred amidst a rapidly changing policy landscape as Australia’s skilled migration program shifted from a supply side to a demand driven system.   International graduates were still benefiting from an earlier policy which allowed international students graduating from Australian institutions to apply for Skill Stream visas onshore. However, the government became concerned about how the apparent higher level of advantage given to international students with Australian qualifications in areas of skill shortages (e.g. hospitality) was encouraging some to study in Australia for migration purposes alone. The federal Government in 2012 introduced a series of reforms after the Knight Review.  The new policy favoured employer sponsorship. The criteria for obtaining a permanent residency visa was tightened, thus removing any perceived link between education and migration. The focus was to attract international students to Australia by offering a high quality higher education experience rather than future employment (Gribble & Blackmore, 2012).  For many international graduates, the shift in policy now meant finding alternate pathways to achieving long term residency in Australia.

This was not a systematic study of any of either the Australian or international labour markets in accountancy, engineering or nursing. We examined the expectations of employers and investigated what they are looking for in terms of credentials, skills and attributes when hiring graduates in the three discipline areas. Via in depth qualitative interviews with international students, university staff, employers, industry bodies and government, the study examined how international graduates negotiate this shifting policy environment, why they place so much importance on post-study work and the strategies they employ to enhance their chances of securing employment in Australian after graduating.  The study also explored the implications for universities and how they are affected by the emphasis on post study employment outcomes.

Credentials alone are not a guarantee of employment

Both extant Australian and international research indicate that with the massification of higher education that credentials alone are no longer a guarantee of graduate employment (Brown, Lauder & Ashton, 2010).  Our interviews with employers and graduates found that while employers are seeking a good university qualification, there is a preference for graduates with a broad range of skills and experience. Employers are looking for graduates with a portfolio of experience that includes volunteer work, extracurricular activities, excellent communication skills and relevant local work experience.  Visa status is also a major barrier to employment in Australia with many employers reluctant to hire international graduates without permanent residency. Not one international graduate interviewed for our study was sponsored by an Australian employer.

International graduates place great importance on gaining relevant local work experience

For international graduates, acquiring relevant work experience while at university is considered imperative.  While a clinical placement is a compulsory component of any nursing qualification, there is growing demand for some form of work placement in accounting and engineering.  The growing demand for work experience is evidenced in the expansion of programs such as the Professional Year as well as the recent decision by the Victorian government to invest in an internship program for international students (see Internships and work experience report).  Despite the significant demand for work experience, international students are largely frustrated by the lack of work experience opportunities.

Evidence of highly differentiated labour markets within specific fields

Our research reveals that within the specific fields of accounting, nursing and engineering the labour markets are highly differentiated. For example, while graduate accountants may experience some difficulty entering the labour market, there are indications of shortages of mid-level accountants with 5-10 years’ experience.  There are also suggestions that smaller firms may find it harder to fill labour shortages than larger more prestigious corporations. Shortages for nurses and engineers with specialists skills also persist (Health Workforce Australia, 2012; McLeod, 2012)

Employment expectations of international graduate

Interviews with international accounting students reveal that many embark on their studies in Australia with very high expectations of post study employment.  For example, many of the international accounting students we interviewed had set their sights on a graduate position in a large multinational firms while most nursing students were aiming to work in in the major metropolitan hospitals. Our research suggests that the expectations of international students need to be carefully managed and the benefits associated with gaining work outside the “Big 4” or in metropolitan centres need to be emphasised.  As with every early career, there are multiple pathways and working for a smaller firm, a regional hospital or a not-for-profit may lead to other opportunities.

Improving the work readiness of international graduates

Finally, our study reveals that with the growing importance being placed on work experience, English language and extracurricular activities, international graduates require further opportunities to develop capacity in these areas and establish local networks in order to improve their chances of success in the labour market. This finding has implications for the Australian university sector who can play a key role in enhancing international graduates’ employability. English language proficiency is central to labour market success in both home and host countries and this study confirms that many international students require additional support to further develop their English language skills.  Importantly, providing international students with exposure to the Australian workplace via internships and other work integrated learning programs will not only improve the employability of graduates but is likely to enhance the value of an Australian degree.


Brown, P., Lauder, H., & Ashton, D. (2012).The Global Auction. Oxford.

Gribble, C., & Blackmore, J. (2012) Re-positioning Australia’s international education in global knowledge economies: implications of shifts in skilled migration policies for universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(4) 341-354

Health Workforce Australia. (2012). Health Workforce 2025 – Doctors, Nurses and Midwives.  Canberra: Australian Government.

McLeod, P. (2012, April 21). Shortage drives up engineering salaries. The Australian.