Quentin Stevenson-Perks is the Assistant General Manager of International Education at Austrade. We defied the time difference to talk about Australia's strengths in international education; the recent Win Your Future Unlimited competition; and the future of international education in the country.
What are the fields and industries in Australia which are particularly strong or growing, which prospective students should be aware of?
‘Australia’s resources and mining sectors are still very, very strong and all about export growth. However we also have a very strong advanced services sector which accounts for 4 out of every 5 jobs and produces about 3/4 of our GDP. And there is a lot of activity happening in some new industries including a lot of interest around renewables (including renewable energy), water management etc. Healthcare is also a big one and a sector that will grow for not just Australia, but many other countries that also face an aging population. So any professional services around healthcare will continue to grow into the future.
Another interesting area, which is a return to the old favourites amongst international students, is Information Technology. I recall that IT seemed to drop off in popularity for international students after the Dot Com crash of early 2000s but it's still in the top 3-5 fields of study for Australia and the demand for software developers and IT infrastructure professionals is continuing to astound. It's a mix of old and new for students who are increasingly interested in a sustainable world in the future. That’s what makes it interesting, the demands skillls and patterns of study keep on changing.’
We recently spoke to Uttam Kumar, winner of the Win Your Future Unlimited award, and he is going to study Materials Sciences too.
‘Yes, a common theme amongst the 37,000 entries we got was that students wanted their careers to be based around improving the world, whether it was through education or making breakthroughs in the Sciences. We had Yaroslava from Russia who was talking about making breakthroughs in Urban Design, while our US finalist Abbey was concerned about Marine Sciences. So, the environment, sustainable development and better cities were a very strong theme which came through in those postcard entries.’
What do students come away with having studied in Australia which they just wouldn’t if they studied elsewhere in the world (skills, qualities, outlook, experience etc.)?
‘Australia has certainly been one of the top destinations for international students for 25 years or more. This success is based on a number of factors including the global reputation Australia’s education institutions and the quality of their graduates and research capabilities. Of course the experience while they are studying is an important aspect of why students choose one location over another, and we've put a lot of effort into the student experience. For example, we were the first country in the world to have national law for international students to protect their rights to a high quality education. And while students studying in Australia can expect to have a safe, rewarding and enjoyable time here; an international education is about more than just the fun you have while studying. Students are increasingly looking for an education experience that best sets them up for their future – their career, their life, their ambitions. We think Australia is one of the best places to kick-start your future.’
What nationalities should an international student expect to meet if they choose to study in Australia?
‘One of the unique things about Australia which always strikes visitors is the sheer multicultural nature of Australia which goes against the stereotype. Not only do we attract students from more than 200 different countries but when they come to Australia they find that many citizens are former migrants from their own countries; so they will find their own languages, cultures, foods etc right here in Australia. So a singular characteristic is how multicultural Australia is and therefore how friendly it is to visitors. That is certainly being replicated in surveys of friendly cities, and Australian capital cities rank very highly in these sorts of indexes.
Not surprisingly given our location, there are a lot of international students drawn from Asia, whether south, south east or north Asia. But also in our top 20 nationalities we see Brazilians, Columbians, Saudis, American, British, Italian, German, Canadian, French and Spainish students. So it's a good blend and we always like to see that diversity. When I went to university, it was largely an Anglo-population, whereas now it is anything but, which makes for a more interesting mix on campus these days.’
One concern for international students considering Australia as a study destination is finding safe, secure and comfortable on-campus accommodation. Is this a valid concern, and if so, what is Australia doing to improve the situation?
‘Cheap, affordable accommodation is always in demand but you can say that about most capital cities. We've put a lot of effort into that. You'll see that a number of Australian universities are increasing their campus accommodation. For example, Australian National University and the University of Canberra both guarantee on-campus accommodation for their first year international students and many other Australian universities are making substantial investments in their stuuudent accommodation.
Like all large cities, getting suitable accommodation can be challenge and it’s one of the reasons that our universities have student service centres which all the international students can access. They deal with a whole range of issues including accommodation; so they can help the students find accommodation which can either be shared off-campus accommodation, homestays for younger students or accommodation on campus. Increasing and improving accommodation for international students is a priority for everyone in the education sector in Australia.’
At the end of September last year, of the 346,965 international student visa holders in Australia, almost a quarter were from China and 10% were from India. Are there any other nationalities which Australia would like to attract in the years to come?
‘Increasing the diversity of our international student nationalities is certainly one of the priorities for Australia and that’s why Austrade is focussing on growth in what we call ‘emerging markets’. We’re doing a lot of work in Latin America, including Brazil, and we’ve had strong success attracting increasing numbers of students from the Brazilian government’s ‘Science without Borders’ programme. By working with the Brazilian scholarship agencies, we’ve managed to increase the number of Brazilian students from around 100 to more than 2000 this year. We’re really very pleased with that, it’s a small step forward. We think the relationship with Brazil through higher education can really blossom. We share a tropical environment and there seems to be a bright future in terms of research collaboration between both countries. So we’re very keen to see an increase in students from across Latin America. But also from Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America and many parts of Asia such as Myanmar and Mongolia.’
Also in September last year, international students may have learned of the new Australian prime minister. What does this mean for international education in the country? Does this affect the country’s/government’s outlook on international education? What knock-on effects will international students feel, if any?
‘Yes, we had a change of government last year and I think the key message which the new Prime Minister used in his acceptance speech is that ‘Australia is open for business’. Whenever I am asked how that translates, I see that as the government exploring new ways to increase its engagement with the world through more visitors, more tourists, attracting more business leaders to bring more investment to Australia, and importantly more international students. Interestingly that also includes getting more Australian students to study offshore through what is called the New Colombo Plan. This is an outward-facing program with Australian students going offshore in increasing numbers, particularly into countries in Asia. How does ‘open for business’ translate into reality? Well last year the Minister for Education and the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection jointly released changes to the student visa programme which has reduced the visa requirements for students wishing to attend private higher education institutions. The streamlined visa process will reduce the requirements for some students wishing to attend private higher education institutions.’
Compared to some major countries, Australia has not suffered as badly from the economic downturn in the last 6 years. Is this a message which you hope to spread to more international students?
‘Australia is probably unique amongst the OECD group of countries. We've had two decades now of sustained economic growth that's averaged about 3.5%. I don't think any other OECD country could match that record. This is based on our sound export performance. Trade with not just China but other countries has grown in the past two decades. This has also been driven by a number of reforms which have fired up the Australian economy in those last two decades.
What it means in practical terms for international students is that Australia offers a strong economy that makes it easier for them to find part-time work to help support themselves while they study here, and also for those students who have a visa that allows them to work after they have completed their studies. This means that they have more opportunities to gain valuable international work experience in their chosen fields.’
Tell us about Future Unlimited and what it means to international students.
‘We introduced Future Unlimited as the brand for Australian international education in June 2011. It is a means of us showcasing what an Australian qualification can bring an international student. Having a strong economy is part of the way we can demonstrate that message. There are plenty of part-time jobs for students. On the current student visa they can work for up to 40 hours per fortnight and full-time in their vacations (once their course has begun). Interestingly, one of the reforms that has come through in the last 12 months or so is the post-study work visa for those who have undertaken a Bachelor's, a Master's by Coursework or a Research degree, to remain and work in Australia in any particular field of employment; it doesn't necessarily have to be related to their field of study. For a Bachelor's or a Master's student you can apply to remain in Australia for up to 2 years. We do have jobs; for example, as I said we have skills shortages in I.T., the services sectors and some of those new industries I was talking about before. What that gives an international student is not just a piece of paper but also work experience; and that becomes a much more powerful tool for advancing your career and future; whether that is in Australia; or back home or in another country. The combination of having a qualification and also having work experience makes Australian educated international students extremely attractive to employers around the world.’
Are there any plans to run the Win Your Future Unlimited competition again?
‘The response to the competition was very strong. Our overall winner, Uttam Kumar friom India, is currently completing his studies at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi , but he has already signed up with the University of New South Wales, which is one of the leaders in Materials Sciences, to undertake his PhD. I would encourage your readers to go to the website to check out all the entries.
In terms of whether we will run the competition again - it's still early days. We're winding up the competition at the moment and will be reviewing its outcomes. We think it was a great success. We had some fantastic financial support from universities and major corporates such as the National Australia Bank and Qantas. I think it showed the power of social media and the way that students are increasingly mobile; it was interesting to see the flow of entries come in, in response to the digital advertising which supported the competition. But we haven’t yet decided if (or when) we would run it again. We’ll keep you posted!’
Any (practical) tips for an international student preparing to arrive in Australia?
‘Austrade manages the studyinaustralia.gov.au website and that has the details of every education institution and every course that is authorised by the Australian goverment for international students. Students can search for different fields, cities or institutions. It also provides useful tips for preparing to study in Australia, such as how you can apply, what you can do after graduation etc.
There are also a lot of student stories; it's not just the Australian Government saying that all things in Australia are wonderful. I would definitely recommend that students look at the website when they start thinking about or planning to study internationally. It has 34 local versions, 11 of which are translated, where students can see stories, news and events that are related to their country, and in some locations they can find details about education agents. It really is a one stop shop for international students. There is also our Facebook page which I would recommend students ‘like’ so they can hear about the latest news, competitions, etc. from us and education providers in Australia.’
Tell us about some of the exciting developments or projects which Austrade (Education sector) have been up to recently.
‘The Study in Australia website has been around since the early 2000’s but it has just been through an extensive process of redevelopment to bring it into the 21st century. Delivering relevant information to students is one of the most important goals for the website. Another thing we've been doing is working with Chinese and Australian multinationals to hold careers fairs in Shanghai and here in Australia, which has been an interesting collaboration to recruit graduates. And of course there was the competition!’
If there was one message which you wanted to spread today, what would it be?
‘Apart from "Australia is the best place in the world to study", if you want to excel, do something you're really interested in because that's going to maximise your success in the future. Uttam and the other 6 finalists from the Win Your Future Unlimited competition were all passionate about what they wanted to do and I think they're going to be fantastic successes in the future. So study what you're interested in and don't copy what everybody else is doing.’
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Interview with Uttam Kumar, winner of the 'Win Your Future Unlimited' contest