International education: A quick skim through Building Australia’s Comparative Advantage.

While those working in the industry might feel it’s taken for granted given that economic headlines tend to focus on mining and agriculture, Australia’s international education export market is continuing to boom, remaining competitive globally, and often the envy of many other developed nations around the globe.

And yesterday, Catherine Livingstone, the President of the Business Council of Australia (“BCA”), acknowledged international education’s continued importance to the mix and vitality of the Australian economy when the BCA published their report into the future challenges facing Australia’s economic competitiveness in a report entitled Building Australia’s Comparative Advantage.

While the focus of the BCA report is across the breadth of the economy, international education features prominently, with the authors arguing that that international education in Australia is performing well, but there are a number of potential threats on the horizon that might undermine future growth and performance.

The publication is actually in response to another recent report published by consulting company McKinsey Australia Compete to Prosper: Improving Australia’s Global Competitiveness who were commissioned by the BCA to examine Australia’s current and future economic performance in global markets. The essential conclusion of both reports was aptly summed up by the Business Council of Australia:

The results indicate that, across a range of measures, most industry sectors are not competitive when compared to the US and that the trend in our relative competitive position has remained the same over the last decade.” (BCA 2014: 4)

So with the above in mind, I thought I’d take a quick read through both reports to see what they had to say specifically about international education. The results shouldn’t surprise anyone who has worked in international education in Australia for any length of time.

BCA: Building Australia’s Comparative Advantages

The BCA report goes on to highlight a number of positives regarding Australia’s international education industry:

  • The report forecasts that international education exports could grow to $26 billion by 2020 if the sector can achieve the same market share it did in 2009 (BCA 2014: 17).
  • Along with agriculture, mining, tourism, international education is one competitive market that Australia is competing extremely well in at a global level (BCA 2014: 25)
  • Australia performs very well in attracting skilled migrants and our international education industry is a key driver of this performance (BCA 2014: 25).

However, the report indicates a number of threats that may threaten our ability to compete in global education markets:

  • Australia’s performance is declining in core education measures such as maths, reading and scientific literacy over the past decade leading to a decline in international ranking for our education system (BCA 2014: 25).
  • In terms of issues in the Australian education system, the BCA note the weakness of our VET sector for supplying the future skills to maintain or grow our economy (BCA 2014: 12).
  • Australia is lagging behind other developed countries when it comes to research, ranked at 15 by the World Economic Forum Competitiveness Index, compared to 3rd for the US and 5th for the UK (BCA 2014: 27). This could be an future issue for attracting international students, as academic research has a direct impact on attracting international students, a point directly made in the McKinsey competitiveness report (McKinsey 2014: 32).Furthermore, there a number of recommendations in the report around structural reform of education, including linking research funding to industry collaboration instead of just incentivising having work published in highly ranked journals (BCA 2014: 52).

The BCA report concludes by stating that in order to continue to build Australia’s strength as a global exporter of international education services, Australia should look to implement to recommendations of the International Education Advisory Council which were published back in February 2013 in the Australia – Educating Globally report.

If you recall that report, you’ll recall that the report’s recommendations included specific ministerial level advisory groups on international education within government, as well as new approaches to tackle issues like affordable accommodation and a more diverse international student population.

McKinsey Australia: Compete to Prosper: Improving Australia’s global competitiveness

Turning to the report compiled by McKinsey Australia, the authors note that international education in Australia will face some key tests in the future as competition for a large future surplus of international mobile students becomes more and more fierce, particularly now since Australia is becoming a more expensive study destination – McKinsey Australia stating that Australia is now 8 percent more expensive than the US and 60 percent more expensive that Singapore (Lydon et al, 2014: 33).

McKinsey highlights an oversupply of 1.9 million student places worldwide in 2020 and notes the potential impact of MOOCs in attracting students to elite universities worldwide. The report makes two forecasts about the future of international education in Australia:

  • That government will have to create a more integrated strategy between education and immigration and deliver a more robust student experience (Lydon et al, 2014: 33).
  • Universities will have to rely on innovation and different modes of delivering content in order to avoid over capacity issues in the future (Lydon et al, 2014: 33).


Essentially both reports paint a good news story about the current state of Australia’s international education industry, but also suggest that in order to maintain our globally competitive export industry, the Australian government along with education providers must continue to support measures that attract international students. It would seem that taking our current position for granted may result in poor future performance and a loss of global market position.


Business Council of Australia. (2014). Building Australia’s Comparative Advantages (pp. 59).

Lydon, J., Dyer, D., & Bradley, C. (2014). Compete to Prosper: Improving Australia’s global competitiveness (pp. 67).