In early February, the latest trade figures confirmed that Australia’s international education exports remain on the rise.
After breaking the $20 billion barrier for the first time in mid-2016, international education brought in a record $21.8 billion to the Australian economy in the past 12 months.
But of course the real value of international education to Australia isn’t one that can be measured on a balance of payments spreadsheet.
It’s in the ties that bind.
When international students get a degree in Australia, they’re also forging friendships and networks that will follow them into global careers.
They come to know Australia and its culture. They learn how to do business here. Ideally, they return home with a great deal of affection for our country.
And vast numbers of them will go on to forge senior careers that remain connected to Australia. Some will be business leaders, diplomats, Ministers, artists, scholars and commentators.
Brilliant researchers may return home – but revisit Australia often throughout their careers as they collaborate with some of the finest researchers in our universities.
The benefits to Australia – and its global alumni – are immense.
But Australia cannot and does not take anything for granted in its efforts to recruit and keep international students in record numbers.
Other nations in our region have been investing heavily in their university systems as they seek to educate more of their students at home – rather than abroad – in the coming decade.
And so Australia must continue to remind the world of the many benefits of studying here.
The growth in recent years has been helped by a number of factors.
Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson points to our proximity to Asia, the lower Australian dollar, and our excellent reputation for quality as key factors.
And, as an English speaking nation, there’s also strong appeal for students who want to build their English language proficiency to the next level ahead of global careers.
“We’re also blessed to have strong whole-of-government support for international education in Australia,” Ms Robinson said.
“That includes leadership and backing from the highest levels in Government – with six key Ministers directly engaged – to promote Australia as a destination of choice for international students.”
“Australia is a beacon for international students because it offers a truly world-class education, global alumni networks, excellent research capabilities, a great student experience and the chance to study in one of the most diverse and multicultural nations on earth.”
And our internationalism is paying off in other ways too.
The Times Higher Education rankings listed five Australian universities in the top 25 most international universities in the world.
These rankings look at the number of international staff and students as well as the strength of their international reputations and their international research collaborations.
In the ranking that measures the top universities under fifty years old, Australia has sixteen in the top one hundred – more than any other nation.
With over 320,000 international students from 130 countries studying at Australian universities, there are immense economic returns and benefits to the wider society.
International education is Australia’s third biggest export – behind only iron ore and coal – and Australia’s biggest services export. It is Victoria’s top export.
And it now supports more than 130,700 Australian jobs.
With a high quality education and a welcoming culture, Australia was the third most popular destination for international students – in tertiary education – in 2013.
Of the top five destination countries, Australia was the only country that increased its market share between 2000 and 2013, as more countries entered the education export market.
Meanwhile domestic students are increasingly including some study abroad as part of their Australian degrees.
And research endeavour is increasingly global – and particularly so in Australia.
Australian universities are also determined to protect and promote the many benefits to the world of international education, research and academic collaboration.
In January, we expressed our concern about the potential impact of the new US executive order on the free exchange of students, academics and researchers between Australia and the United States of America.
Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said Australia and the US had longstanding ties between university sectors and a proud tradition of student and staff exchanges on a large scale.
The executive order has the potential to adversely affect research collaboration, academic conference participation, student exchange programs and postdoctoral work in Australia.
The signing of the executive order sparked a sharp response around the world from eminent researchers and academics.
Universities Australia’s comments came as over 7000 US faculty members and 37 Nobel Laureates signed a petition urging US President Donald Trump to reconsider.
The Association of American Universities called for a reversal of the executive order, saying that the ban threatens to cause “irreparable damage” to the academic reputation of the United States.
Universities Canada and other academic institutions around the world also expressed concern.