Education is Australia's most valuable service export, but there are so many facets of this broad industry, it's hard to know where qualifications end and learning begins. How can we secure the future of this sector? Chalk and talk is a thing of the past in the modern world of education. The industry now encompasses everything from an holistic Australian experience for inbound students completing their tertiary degree, to a training organisation implementing new methods in an overseas workplace.
If you're a small organisation looking to go global, never fear-it's not as hard as you think. Plenty of training businesses have global operations, either using satellite staff in target markets or servicing clients on a fly-in, fly-out basis. Australia-wide Business Training (awbt) is a learning and development organisation focused on capacity building within companies. CEO Larry Gould decided to go global when he observed "a real thirst for practical learning" in Asia. The awbt model involves training facilitators at the Malaysian Institute of Management (MIM) using Australian standards and methods, which the Malaysians then develop into programs to deliver to local businesses. The right partner was crucial, says Gould. "It's important to pick the right partner as it is to do anything else. We provide learning and development for industry, therefore we're not after a partner in the tertiary sector; MIM is a leading provider of education to industry." Their model also gives them freedom from bureaucracy. "If I were setting up awbt in Malaysia I would have to go through the hoops, but because we've taken a resident partner, they take on that responsibility," says Gould. "I'd sooner build capacity within countries with a resident partner and share the result than spread myself too thin." Offering their intellectual property requires a tight licensing agreement and stringent quality control, and a good relationship, which means a lot of direct contact. "Particularly in the Asian countries it is about the relationship," Gould explains. "If you don't develop those relationships and build trust, you can't begin to think about business there." His final advice is for new exporters to do on-the-ground research in the destination country, and "be very clear about what your business model is. Take advice from people you respect, who are recognised as experts, and build that in wherever possible".
The inbound student model is probably the most common form of educational export, whether it's for students completing a university, college or vocational qualification. The International College of Management Sydney (ICMS) is an award-winning private college with courses in tourism, hospitality, events, sports, retail and property management. Managing director Frank Prestipino says they were global from the start, recognising that overseas students were after international experience to boost employment prospects. "There are three aspects: the Australian experience from a cultural point of view, the education aspect that they have a study abroad component, and most importantly, work experience with study experience," he says. ICMS includes an industry training element to its course; a paid position at a relevant employer that students must apply and interview for, as they would a real job. This means added value for students and quality graduates for industry. "When we place students after graduation, employers say 'your students know what to do as soon as they arrive'," notes Prestipino. He adds that multicultural interaction is also a well regarded aspect of the campus, with more than half of the students coming from overseas and, of those, a good blend: 30 percent from the Asia-Pacific, 30 percent from Europe, 30 percent from the Americas and 10 percent from other regions. Like Gould, he says the right partner is vital to secure the right students-"we've turned down partners whose primary role is immigration"-and that he’d rather have quality over quantity: "It's better to have leverage with your partner rather than coverage." As a private college they don’t receive government funding, which can be difficult for a growing business, but Prestipino believes maintaining high standards and a good value proposition makes ICMS competitive. "Educational quality is not something you can set and forget. Every semester, every year, students are different and have different expectations. You must monitor this on a weekly basis," he says. "Go niche-areas where you can cater for well and be very good at-rather than mass."
While the inbound student model is the standard, more advanced educational exporters go offshore. One Australian pioneer of this model is the University of Wollongong (UOW), which was the first foreign-owned campus to establish itself in the United Arab Emirates. While UOW has an inbound student program, pro vice-chancellor (International) Joe Chicharo says the Dubai campus attracts students who wouldn’t have come to Australia to study, including both UAE locals and others in the region. "It's a different demographic of students. Some students want to be immersed in our culture in Australia. Others are looking for an international qualification and might be attracted for a range of other factors-it could be family or cost-to parts of the world where they can stay closer to parents and so on," he explains. There were initial adjustments, including navigating the Dubai education system, which was aligned with the USA’s, as well as achieving local accreditation and local language requirements, but Chicharo says they have the model right. "It's essentially run through the commercial arm of the university, it's a private university," he explains. "The campus there is independent, we do quality assurance. Flexibility has been very useful in terms of its success." Today, UOW’s commitment has enhanced their reputation: "People have seen that we're in there for the long term, that we're there to share our education knowledge and expertise in building the next generation of human capital," Chicharo says. The university also has partnerships and operations in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong and China, which deliver the same UOW standard as the Australian and UAE campuses. Chicharo notes the value also flows back to Australia: "We learn a lot from being deeply engaged in the [global] environment; very often we do bring innovations into our courses here, or wider perspectives."
Education is so broad that any industry can benefit from an educational component. This ranges from export education itself-teaching other countries how to improve their exporting-to courses that are industry specific, whether that’s animal husbandry, sommelier training or lessons in machinery operation. Two areas closely linked to education are tourism and the software industry. Tourism benefits from inbound students who come to Australia to study, then take domestic trips throughout their stay; one benefit of being so far away from the rest of the world is that not every student can afford to go home during semester break. Additionally, e-learning programs and their associated services and software are becoming popular exports for Australian IT businesses. Exports range from the software design itself, where exporters provide the structure and the client provides the content, to e-learning on specific subjects, and tailor-made solutions.
Language can be a barrier for some education exporters as many teaching styles are not generally conducive to interpretation. This could mean having to hire teachers with local language skills, or restricting the exporting to the business model itself-the structure, processes and educational standards-foregoing translation needs. Standards can also pose a few difficulties with different countries having different education standards. Fortunately, Australian standards are quite high, so there may not be a lot of tweaking required, but you’ll need to be aware of what’s expected. The perceived divide between education and commercial operation can be difficult to traverse. Those in the business of education often compete with public institutions. "You have to have a damn good value proposition if you're competing with free," says Prestipino. He believes private colleges should be included in government initiatives so the sector can work together to maintain standards and improve exports. There’s also the immigration aspect, as education is often seen as a gateway to Australian residency. Chicharo says government policy addressing the link between education and immigration needs to be considered wisely to strike the right balance. The strength of the Australian dollar is also a factor, particularly in the inbound student sector where living expenses will contribute to the cost of a student’s education. "As a sector we suffer from all sorts of things: the financial crisis, pandemics, the variability of the Australian dollar," summarises Chicharo.
Gould's view is that Asia will be the biggest consumer of Australian education, which is why he's dedicated to the region. But we'll engage differently, he says: "We automatically think about Asian students coming here, but the opportunity for learning and development organisations is the other way: going to those countries and building capacity from within." For Prestipino, being able to sustain quality and value will lead to further success. This will become more important as globalisation takes hold. "Particularly in the services industry there's a screaming demand for individuals to have a lot more global savvy in the way they work and manage," he says, adding that institutions like ICMS will meet demand. Chicharo believes that not only will the sector grow, "those people that are getting into it for the wrong reasons are not going to have a happy time". He concludes: "There'll always be a need for people to be educated overseas and it's an area that's going to evolve in terms of how you set up your partnerships. Some models will survive better than others. It's an exciting sector to be in."
CASE STUDY: Visiting Researcher Program
Educational marketing is no longer about waving brochures, according to Flemming Larsen, Austrade's trade commissioner for Scandinavia and coordinating officer for Australian Education International. Larsen is the architect of the new Visiting Researcher Program running throughout Europe. "I was looking at how we could link education with other government investments like cleantech," he explains of the program's genesis. "I thought, 'why don't we invite researchers from Australia in the cleantech sector to come to Europe and link up with counterparts?' The visiting professor would be in front of hundreds of students at a university faculty." This serves two key purposes: it captures the interest of European students, and it allows Australia to "move up the value chain in our proposition as a study destination". "Students see the link their university already has with the university in Australia. That's going to be the pulling effect for the undergraduates to consider Australia," says Larsen. The program has other benefits besides marketing. If the research has a commercial aspect, the researcher has the opportunity to meet with industry on the tour. Further to that, Larsen notes there's much Australia can teach Europe. "They could not see how a university could be commercial, so maybe we have another thing to teach the universities that are a little more progressive, moving their research into commercialisation," he says. The program presents a significant logistical challenge, not only in moving the researcher around the continent, but juggling calendars. Add the fact that Austrade had a flood of applicants for the program, and it is also about managing candidates. With more money there would be more visits, and to other regions, says Larsen, and the program could also work for sectors outside cleantech. For the meantime, they'll track the effect of the visits. "The ultimate measure is to see what level of cooperation will exist between the universities," he says. "I want to see the student visa statistics grow, and I want higher education students: postgraduate and PhD students."