Australia Plan to boost international education sector targets student satisfaction
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A federal government strategy to revive international education will focus on student satisfaction through surveys which experts warn may not improve quality and may risk lowering standards.
The government has released a discussion paper on the strategy which includes "consideration and engagement of the student perspectives" as an indicator to measure the success of its international education program.
Border closures have impeded recruitment efforts by Australian universities reliant on overseas students. Education Minister Alan Tudge released a consultation paper for a 10-year strategy earlier this month on how the sector can rebound from the pandemic.
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Dr Gwilym Croucher, a senior lecturer in higher education policy and management at the University of Melbourne, said there was a limit to what student satisfaction surveys could achieve.
"It can be a clunky way to assess how students have experienced their course and the value it has provided to them," he said.
Higher education researcher Peter Hurley from Victoria University's Mitchell Institute agreed the scope of surveys were limited. "Student satisfaction is different to measuring the quality of learning, but having said that I think it is an important thing to do for international students," he said.
Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Australian National University, said seeking feedback was reasonable depending on the questions.
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"If there is a very clear level of dissatisfaction, that probably is a problem even though you could raise question marks about whether any individual student has made a fair assessment of their own personal experience," he said.
All universities and higher education providers take part in the annual Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching surveys which report on student experiences. The latest snapshot provided earlier this year showed the results for international students were lower (63 per cent) than those for domestic students (70 per cent) when it came to the assessment of the quality of their educational experience.
Tertiary education consultant Claire Field said international student satisfaction was typically a few points below the level for domestic students.
"Keeping a clear focus on student satisfaction through this new strategy would be a very good thing, however government and the regulators will need to make sure academic standards are not compromised," she said.
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"Too much emphasis on the KPIs [key performance indicator] could result in perverse incentives for institutions to pass more students to keep them happy, even where their work may not be up to the required standard.
"In the past, we've seen reports from academics feeling pressured to pass students. It would be a real shame if those pressures were exacerbated by a new international education strategy which tries to make sure students have a positive learning experience in Australia."
The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the sector's regulator, has also started requiring universities to measure and track satisfaction for different cohorts.
A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Education said a high-quality student experience was "important for Australia's international competitiveness as an international education partner and for the reputation of our educational institutions".
"We are confident that universities do not and would not lower academic standards in order to influence student experience. This would of course be detrimental to local and international students and damage the strong reputation of Australia's universities," the spokeswoman said.
David Riordan, a former head of international education at the NSW Department of Education and a former member of the federal government council for international education, said the new focus on student satisfaction was "a great step forward".
"If students return to their countries and have a poor experience then it is going to have an impact on the future of international education," he said. "I would be very sorry to hear that quality and standards were being compromised in the interests of keeping students happy and passing."
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