International education sector learns new ways of coping with closed borders

Monday, 01 March 2021

Denise Cullen photo
Denise Cullen
Freelance Journalist

    As the world waits for coronavirus restrictions to ease and borders to reopen, educators are finding innovative ways to reach and retain international students.

    When South Australia’s International Education Services (IES) started to batten down the hatches a year ago in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, director of international education Marilyn Sleath knew tough decisions lay ahead. “We started with, ‘OK, this is where we find ourselves. Now we must do everything we can to stay close to the customer, and keep every customer we have’,” says Sleath.

    IES is a directorate of the SA Department for Education, trading as South Australian Government Schools in global international education markets. It runs as a “business within government”, which has grown steadily since its establishment 31 years ago, before reaching last year’s record high of 1754 enrolled students.

    While that’s a fraction of the 35,733 onshore international enrolments at South Australian educational institutions in 2017, according to a 2018 Deloitte Access Economics report, International Education in Australia, IES punches above its weight.In an average year, the organisation contributes $40m to the state via tuition fees and payments to homestay families and generates another $3m in revenue from study tours. And there are indirect contributions from international students’ purchases of food and beverages, retail goods, entertainment and recreation services. The Deloitte study showed that a single international student enrolment in a school contributed $45,700 in value added and 0.38 FTE jobs in the state.

    As borders closed, the risks were obvious. Austrade reports that nationally in 2020, Australia had 684,000 international students, nine per cent fewer than in 2019. With more international enrolments per capita than any other Australian destination, SA had a lot to lose. The future for IES also looked uncertain. A strategy rethink was imperative. Although the organisation has capacity for 40 staff, numbers were reduced to 30 through natural attrition and some forced departures.

    “We had to let go a couple of senior people and it was difficult,” says Sleath, noting that “critical skeleton staff who could perform every part of the business” were retained. “Even now, staff are conscious everybody has to keep performing and be ready to accept business when the gates open again.”

    By the numbers

    • $2.2b annual value of South Australia’s international education sector pre-pandemic
    • 18.6% growth in SA international education sector to December 2019
    • 1989 the year IES commenced business on a trial basis in four schools
    • 1050 the number of IES international students onshore in 2020
    • 1,769,319 population of South Australia at 30 June 2020

    Strategic rethink

    IES operates within a complex web of legislative and governance requirements. The organisation is subject to legislation including the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act), the Migration Act 1958 and the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017. Stakeholders include the Education Standards Board SA, the Department of Home Affairs, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

    Balancing diverse needs and priorities can prove challenging. At the height of the pandemic in early April — as Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised international students: “It’s time to make your way home” — IES rolled out a retention strategy for students already in the country, knowing that, if they left, many would not return.

    Rebecca Fuss, executive manager of international business, says this required a collaborative whole-of-staff effort to liaise with existing students, parents, homestay families and school staff. “For schools, in particular, they were looking to us for answers and information so that they could alleviate concerns, of their students [and] homestay families, but also their staff — so there was quite a lot going on.”

    Once safety and strategic communication needs were addressed, IES solicited student feedback and ideas from staff about keeping clients interested, engaged and onshore. “Because the borders were closed, our only way of [gaining] revenue was to retain what we had and try to grow [new programs],” says Sleath. A holiday program incorporated a variety of student-nominated activities, including an intercultural sports day, picnics, sightseeing bus trips, and multi-day camps.

    “We spent a lot of money on that, so that the kids have good things to look forward to and the homestays get a break,” says Sleath.

    A new Intensive Secondary English Course (ISEC) Connect course — delivered in real time to offshore students via a virtual classroom — was also launched. “We had 46 students in 2020,” says Sleath. “This year, we’ve got 113 with a waitlist because we’ve given our agents something to sell. It’s really kept us alive and afloat.”

    Two student ambassador groups were formed — one to engage with the Chinese market and reassure students that, despite the current diplomatic tensions, “this is a safe place to be and [they] are certainly welcome here”, says Fuss. The other group will keep on- and offshore students engaged with IES during the school break via virtual cooking, art and other classes.

    “When [ISEC Connect] kids do come onshore they’ll have familiar faces and relationships already established,” says Fuss. “For international students, when they first come onshore, it’s quite a daunting thing, [but] they’re going to get here and have so much of that stress alleviated because they’ve already done a lot of the groundwork.”

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