Restoring Learning Abroad into the Australian student experience

Published on 31 May 2022

International education comprises the transformational experience of living and learning in another country. Australian universities lead the world in providing educational opportunities to students from around the global on our campuses. Now that borders to most countries have opened, it’s time to turn our focus to restoring learning abroad opportunities for Australian students write Dr Davina Potts and Dr Kirrilee Hughes, two contributors to IEAA’s Learning Abroad in Australia Universities White Paper. 

Dr Davina Potts
University of Melbourne
Dr Kirrilee Hughes
IEAA, Bestari Consulting
Before 2020 and the onset of COVID-19, learning abroad participation by Australian higher education students was at an all-time high. University educators and learning abroad teams across Australia had shifted institutional culture to embrace international opportunities for all students. As a result, and over the past decade in particular, our national participation in learning abroad grew from 15,058 students in 2009 to 58,000+ in 2019, or 19% of the graduating cohort at all study levels.

Learning abroad programs have developed well beyond semester-long reciprocal exchange programs to embrace credit-bearing and extra-curricular short-term experiences; faculty-led and centrally-designed global study tours; global heath placements; as well as global internships, work placements, and as a result of COVID-19, virtual mobility programs.

No longer anecdotal, global research now firmly establishes learning abroad as one of the most important experiences a student can access during their undergraduate years; it improves their learning outcomes and their future employability. And Australian students have voted with their feet: in 2019, almost one in four Australian undergraduate students completed a learning abroad experience during their degree (Australian University International Directors’ Forum, 2019). This made Australia a world leader in learning abroad, with only 7% of comparable students in the UK and 16% in the USA participating in learning abroad programs in 2018-19.

Smart policy settings have supported this growth and in particular, the introduction of the OS-HELP, a deferred loan program to support overseas study, was a true ‘step change’, enabling access to learning abroad for many more Australian undergraduate students.

Under the former government, the New Colombo Plan built a culture of study in the Indo-Pacific region through a dramatic increase in funding from previous schemes, Asiabound and the Prime Minister’s Asia Awards. By focusing support for activities in our neighbouring region, learning abroad has underpinned broader Australian engagement with key countries while building Asia-ready graduates. Targeted policy has also spurred participation across more diverse academic disciplines with new programs established to address our region’s significant challenges including public health, climate change, sustainability, urban planning and disability inclusion. By 2019, nearly half (49%) of all learning abroad experiences by Australian undergraduate students were in the Indo-Pacific region.

With the onset of COVID-19, our great gains in expanding participation in learning abroad and engaging students with more diverse destinations came to a jolting and absolute halt. One of the untold stories of the pandemic is the 120,000 to 180,000 young Australians who missed out on their opportunity to participate in a learning abroad experience. Giving pause to that for a moment: this means our future government, business, community and cultural leaders have not been able to undertake a transformative learning abroad experience. Learning abroad is a common experience across both sides of politics as it has been for business and community leaders as well as our cultural icons. Learning abroad enriches Australia’s national institutions, our global competitiveness and our daily lives; without it, we’re all worse off.

The impact of COVID-19 has also meant that many universities have reduced staffing levels and other resources for their learning abroad teams. We are at risk of not only losing the great momentum generated for learning abroad participation prior to COVID-19, but also the deep expertise and practical knowledge of collective learning abroad teams across the nation.

Smart policy settings have supported Australia’s learning abroad participation to lead the world. Our incoming government has a great opportunity to continue to support learning abroad opportunities for all Australian students, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region. University leadership must acknowledge the value of learning abroad to their students and restore resources to learning abroad teams. And, whilst we may never be able to make it up to the ‘COVID generation’, learning abroad professionals must double down on a decade of strong progress and ensure that opportunities abound for future generations in ways never seen before.

IEAA’s White Paper on Learning Abroad in Australian Universities focuses on six key areas and provides an evidence base for these:

  • Globally engaged leaders: Learning abroad develops globally engaged community and business leaders.
  • Global citizens: Learning abroad fosters a global outlook which is critical to citizenship in a multicultural society and an increasingly connected world.
  • Australia’s relations with the world: Learning abroad connects young Australians to global democracy, foreign policy and soft power initiatives.
  • Student experience: Learning abroad positives impacts student engagement, retention and satisfaction.
  • Employability and graduate outcomes: Learning abroad develops employability skills and improves graduate employment and outcomes
  • Driver for student recruitment: Learning abroad supports domestic recruitment into Australian universities for both undergraduate and postgraduate study.

Each key point is accompanied by calls to action relevant to institutional leaders and learning abroad team members.

Download IEAA’s Learning Abroad in Australian Universities White Paper.

About the authors:

Dr Davina Potts is the Director, Future Students at the University of Melbourne and an Honorary Fellow with the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Her research interests include international higher education with a particular focus on the intersection of international experiences and employment. 

Dr Kirrilee Hughes is IEAA’s Research Manager and an international education consultant. She has held leadership and strategy roles for global education organisations as well as sessional teaching and research positions at leading Australian universities. Kirrilee is an IEAA Senior Fellow and has special expertise in Indonesia and broader Southeast Asia.

About the Authors

Dr Davina Potts is the Director, Future Students at the University of Melbourne and an Honorary Fellow with the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Her research interests include international higher education with a particular focus on the intersection of international experiences and employment.