International students destroy Australia’s productivity future

Last week, Adrian Blundell-Wignall – former director of the OECD, an adjunct professor at Sydney University and author of Globalisation and Finance at the Crossroads – penned the following in The AFR on how to “turbocharge Australia’s productivity”, which claimed that “better education output is central to future productivity growth”:

More generally, the “plan” should be a framework that provides a research-and-innovation culture and policy certainty. The plan should recognise that better education output is central to future productivity growth.

After reading this diagnosis, it immediately sprung to mind that Australia is doing the complete opposite on the “better education output” front.

As has been reported repeatedly on this site, Australia’s tertiary education system has morphed from “higher learning” to “higher earner”, with universities turned into ‘degree factories’ for maximum profit.

Nowhere is this more evident than with our universities’ ruthless pursuit of international students, whose numbers have nearly doubled over the past six years:

This surge in numbers has driven the share of international students studying at Australia’s universities to alarming heights:

In fact, if the current trajectory of international student numbers is maintained, then the share of international students will soon overtake domestic students.

Australia’s universities and the federal government have actively sought international students because of the lucrative fees on offer. This is illustrated clearly by the below chart from NSW Auditor-General:

As well as the below graphic from the ABC showing the export income associated with the surge in student numbers:

While universities and government always talk up the financial dividends from international students, they refuse to acknowledge the broader costs to productivity associated with the boom in international student numbers.

The recent Four Corners expose on Australia’s international student trade exposed these costs, presenting damning evidence that Australia’s universities have badly lowered entry and teaching standards in a bid to entice large numbers of lower-quality, full fee-paying international students, most of whom lack basic English language skills.

separate Four Corners report aired in 2015 similarly documented widespread cheating, plagiarism and fraud by international students at Australia’s universities.

Alongside ballooning international student numbers, the ratio of students to academic staff at Australia’s universities has materially worsened, increasing from 20.05 in 2009 to 21.44 in 2017:

This is a clear metric showing that education quality has been eroded, especially when viewed alongside most international students being of Non English-Speaking Backgrounds and, therefore, having higher needs than native English-speaking domestic students.

Basically, Australia’s future productivity has been put at risk from the commercialisation of Australia’s universities into ‘degree factories’. Education has been turned into a commodity to be sold for maximum profit, rather than a tool for up-skilling the population.

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