Value and costs in International Higher Education: In the wake of the G8

The Group of Eight (“G8”), known to those in Australia as a group of leading research institutions, has published a neat summary document of research into the motivations of international students to study overseas, with a particular focus on Australia. It’s not a study in itself, instead gathers together data and research from bodies such as Australia Education International (“AEI”), Hobsons, World Education Services (“WES”), I-Graduate and a number of others. The summary document roughly covers the last two to three years.

The makeup and methodologies of the surveys contained within the summary document varies. Some consider smaller export market samples, while others are wide ranging and very comprehensive (for instance, The British Council in their 2010 study on student decision marking surveyed over 100,000 students from 200 countries).

Taking the G8s analysis on face value, it does seem true that for the vast majority of international students that research and teaching quality is the trump card for those looking for an international experience. Many of the studies consider fees and costs of living and this metric consistently come in second to research and teaching quality. It’s clear that a quality education will always be worth the cost.

Quality is a no doubt an important factor in attracting international students, but considering the relative high cost in tuition in Australia, will quality always trump cost? It’s clear that Australia has becoming an expensive place for foreign students. Recently, HSBC has claimed that Australia is now the most expensive place for internationals to study.

However, they concede that cost of living expenses make up the bulk of this claim – something that may be hard for Australian tertiary education providers to avoid. Worryingly though, competitors, such as the US, Canada and the UK are cheaper places to live and study, and considered equal and higher in terms of quality. Clearly, that’s an ongoing risk, particularly if Australian universities want to attract high-quality students.

Considering that that exchange rate pressures and a high Australian dollar over the past few years have meant that Australia has become an expensive place for internationals, signs that the dollar might be normalising and settling at what many consider a true reflection of its value relative to the USD will be welcomed. Yes, quality is perhaps the most important for students, but it’s clear that cost is still vitally important in the decision making process of prospective international students!

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).

Conclusions

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.

References

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).

Links

Cyberwar debates

There has been some robust debate happening on a corner of the Internet. I’ve written before about some of my concerns about the rhetoric of “cyber” war in the past (Related pieces here and here), but recently I was compelled to write in to the Lowry Interpreter, commenting on a piece by cyber security expert Ian Wallace. Ian was discussing the coming age of cyberwarfare and new cyberweapons, and I expressed some skepticism as to exactly what these ‘things’ are, requesting some clarification.

His original piece is linked here and I’ve quoted my response below (which you can also read here).

“I found the recently published post by Ian Wallace another example of a somewhat frustrating article on ‘cyber’ warfare.

That there is some kind of ‘warfare’ taking place on telecommunications networks (outside of fictional networked video games) is increasingly becoming a taken-for-granted fact. Espionage, crime – sure – but warfare? Unless the definition of warfare has changed substantially, I’m still unsure how an actor might actually use the Internet to gain strategic or tactical advantages in the field of war. Yet articles like the one Ian Wallace has published indicates that there is, or there might be, such uses for the Internet .

Questions I’d love answered include: have there been recorded cases of states or non-state actors using networked technology for a strategic or tactical advantage in war? Or, in what circumstances can an actor gain advantage in war through use of cyber ‘weapons’ (whatever they might be) that couldn’t be gained using preexisting ‘conventional’ weaponry?

It seems to me that those advocating the existence of cyber war (or its possibility) do a poor job of articulating the utility of cyberspace as a domain of conflict outside of describing it in terms more relevant to espionage or crime. Call me paranoid, but the increasing rhetoric of ‘cyber’ warfare seems more about consolidating state power over the Internet than it has to do with actual important security concerns.”

Unexpectedly, the Interpreter published it and the original author wrote back with a much more detailed and, I think, better response via the Lowry Interpreter which is linked here. I particularly am drawn to this point

“How should governments deal with cyber acts that have a national security impact (espionage, sabotage and subversion, if you will) but which fall below the threshold of ‘war’, especially when the perpetrators are based overseas and often beyond the reach of law enforcement?”

…which I think is a very legitimate concern.

Other people have written in to share their views, such as engineer Tony Healy who opens up with a discussion of Stuxnet making some excellent points and pointing out some key challenges for security. For the record, I don’t disagree that cyber threats don’t exist, I’m essentially engaging in a argument of the appropriateness of the term ‘cyber warfare’.

To briefly clarify, I’m aware of the potential for using networked technologies to gain advantages in ‘war’ however I’m still skeptical as to the current level of utility networked technologies, or technologies or methods that exploit networks have over conventional methods of ‘doing war’. No doubt this viewpoint will change as technology gets even more advanced and integrated and perhaps after our view on what constitutes ‘cyber’ and what doesn’t as it still seems to me that ‘cyber’ is a blanket term used to describe acts of war that might use some aspect of newer technology.

The war over the Internet

If you leave the door open to your house, and someone enters and steals some items, you don’t say you’re at war. You’ve been robbed certainly, but you’re not in a state of war.

I completely agree with Sam Roggeveen’s sentiments over at The Intepreter regarding the cyber warfare rhetoric that is doing the rounds in both within Australian Government circles and also in the media.

While I have written about it before, I do find it very interesting that nation-states like the US and Australia can seemingly easily lay blame for network intrustions on the shoulders of nation states like China. Now I don’t expect for a second that they don’t have experts advising them on how networks like the Internet function, it is interesting how network connections from IP Addresses allegedly within China, become ‘Chinese Hackers’ and then morph into ‘China’.

While I’m not for a second claiming that Chinese security personnel are not engaging in a form of espionage (Citizen Lab in Canada is doing a lot of interesting research work on these issues), one should be aware that IT security professionals are well aware at how easy it is to spoof IP Addresses and route traffic through other countries on their way to other destinations. I frequently find that the articles on cyber-attacks and cyber war gloss over the question of how one knows where exactly an attack or network intrusion comes from.

Buzan’s and Waever’s ideas on ‘securitisation’ seem so obviously applicable here in the way cyberwar is being discussed, particularly within contemporary Australia politics. Call me paranoid, but my fear is that these alleged ‘cyber attacks’ are being increasingly discussed as existential threats in the hopes the government’s around the world can increase their control over the networked domain. We have seen with the likes of Wikileaks that the Internet doesn’t always exactly play nice with the interests of governments.

The reality of these attacks is, at least to me, that many of these network intrusions come down to poor IT infrastructure and security protocols domestically. Other nodes on the network exploit these weaknesses. Opportunity knocks. Don’t leave your doors open.


Perhaps of interest, here’s an address by IT Security expert Marcus Ranum talking about how the analogies of war don’t work in cyber space.

Some other commentary from around the web:

Boston Marathon and the Chechen connection

The terrible events of the last week in America may significantly alter western perceptions of jihadist terrorism should those suspected of undertaking the Boston Marathon attacks be eventually proved to be culpable.

Two young Chechen males were singled out with the use of photographs. One of those suspects is now dead, and the other critically injured after a gun battle with Boston police (one police officer has also passed away). As The Guardian writes, “if it established that Chechens had planted the bombs in Boston, it would mark an unprecedented development: the first time militants from the former Soviet republic have carried out a deadly attack outside Russia.”

For those who are not aware, the province of Chechnya in southern Russia is demographically dominated by Muslims. They’ve been involved with a decades-old struggle for autonomy with Russia for some time, and have, at different times, been linked with the activities of al-Qaeda, with many young Chechen’s receiving training in other theatres of jihad such as Afghanistan.

However, many in the west have always presumed the Chechen conflict to be one that was rationalised within the boundaries of secession, a struggle not explicitly congruent with the goals of groups like al-Qaeda (saying that, al-Qaeda has shown time and again that they’re more than willing to support struggles of Islam against ‘foreign’ influence). For instance a 2009 report by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism stated that despite the visible presence of jihadist fighters associated with al-Qaeda, “the conflict in Chechnya is one of secession and not Islamic fundamentalism. The objective of the resistance is the creation of an independent Chechnya and not a fight against the west” (Scher 2009)[1].

However, it’s difficult to say that those accused of the atrocities in Boston are in fact linked explicitly to the run-of-the-mill jihadist terrorist groups America has been dealing with since September 11. It’s been written that those accused of the bombings grew up in America and were not known to be involved in militant activity. It’s actually pretty difficult to see what gains a Chechen would get from attacking American civillians, assuming that their raison d’etre is still dominated by dreams of Chechen autonomy.

Saying all that, radical Islam has proved to be a remarkably flexible ideological framework. It can both justify and motivate violence, but often acts a shroud for other context-specific grievances, such as competing value systems, political and social exclusion and territorial dispossession. These grievances could easily be one thing to motivate individuals to terrorism, even if their ethnicity might indicate some other rationalisation for violence.

What is clear to me, should those accused eventually be found guilty, it indicates the continued enigma that is terrorism. It’s difficult to pinpoint general root causes of these sorts of violent acts. In the case of jihadist terrorism, I personally favour the grievance-as-cause thesis behind terrorism. Studies of Muslim migrant communities have concluded that vulnerable parts of Muslim communities may attempt to recast their ‘otherness’ in a reactive identity (Roy 2004: 45) (ror the record, I reject the argument of Islam as a pathologically violent religion). Such reactions could be made reality through the act of bombing American civillians participating in a marathon.

We’ll have a to wait a bit longer to see the fog of conflict dissipate, until the truth about what exactly went on, that those suspected of the act are actually proved guilty, before we can draw strong conclusions. Whatever comes of it, these acts of violence have reverberated throughout the international system, and serve as a continued reminder of the lingering danger of terrorism.

[1] Scher, Gideon. 2009. ‘Chechen Jihad: An Analytical Overview’. International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Accessed 30 September 2009. Available at http://ict.org.il/Articles/tabid/66/Articlsid/743/currentpage/1/Default.aspx.
[2] Roy, Oliver. 2004. Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. London: Hurst & Company.

Follow me on Twitter & site design changes

Twitter_bird_logo_2012.svgI have a new public facing twitter account.

You’re welcome to follow me and bug me with questions, or abuse, or niceties. It’s really up to you.

You can find me @dbfmurray.

If you’re still following me on my now private twitter account, I’m still checking that, so don’t fret.

I’m also changing some of the site design around to accomodate longer articles. Unfortunately the previous theme, pretty as it was, wasn’t exactly image or video friendly.