Following a successful APAC HE FEST, we interviewed Dr Cate Gribble, senior research fellow at RMIT about her perspective on higher education.
Hello Dr Cate Gribble! Thank you for agreeing to talk to us today about international student mobility. Firstly, talk us through some of the trends in student mobility now, in 2016, and what you think it might be like in ten years, in 2026.
Cate: Sure, so firstly I come from an Australian perspective and that’s where most of my research starts, even though I’m looking at global trends. I think China is obviously the major player, particularly for countries like Australia and I can’t see that changing within 10 years. I think China will remain a major player in the international education market, in terms of sending students abroad but also as a host destination. The Chinese government has poured a lot of money into their domestic system as a way of catering for Chinese students, but also as a way of attracting students to study in China. I think that will continue to be an interesting space to look at. In this region I think we are already seeing signs of countries like Vietnam, probably sending more students abroad. It’s an emerging economy with a growing middle class and it’s got a very underdeveloped domestic tertiary system. As the middle class continues to grow, they may be looking for opportunities to send their kids abroad. So I think Vietnam is a country that is certainly growing, in terms of being a major source country for Australia. Then there are other countries, India of course is a big player and I think it’s got a huge potential in terms of being a very young population, whereas China’s population, because of the one child policy, will begin to Peter out, but India is still booming. Then there are countries like Indonesia, which is interesting as well because it’s got a very vibrant economy and again, a growing middle class. Any of those countries that are going from being an underdeveloped to a developed country, are going through their economic transition. I think that’s where there is a lot of potential for growth in student mobility.
How do you think language will play a part, thinking about students from Australia going to China or India? Do you think the institutions in China or India will start to accommodate different courses in different languages?
There is a big growth in EMI-English Medium Instruction. So for example in Japan it has become a big thing because they have got a declining population, so they are looking at how to fill their universities, as they simply don’t have enough Japanese students to attend them, so they need to get foreign students in. As you pointed out language can be a barrier, so there is a big trend towards English Medium Instruction and I think that would probably be the case in China and other countries. English is such a valuable language to have that the other students from Singapore or from other Asian nations would maybe want to study in English not necessarily in Australia I guess.
The other thing that I noticed down in Australia, particularly in the China space, is that there is a growing trend for Chinese parents to send their Children over quite early. So there is a growth in secondary education in Australia. Also in Australia there is a keen interest, as it establishes a pipeline into tertiary education. So we have a relatively high number of Chinese students in our secondary system. Also there are a number of prestigious Australian private schools, setting up campuses in China. Haileybury has set up their campus in China, offering Australian curriculum in China, I think that’s an interesting area as well. My particular interest is in the whole employability around internationalisation, it’s a very hot topic at the moment and I think it would continue as students look to try and find a point of differentiation in the labour market, so an international experience is increasingly seen to do that. But students are looking for more than just the foreign qualifications, they want the package of qualifications and the work experience. So I think host countries like Australia, UK, and New Zealand, will need to be thinking how they can offer those experiences. I think Ian [Marshman] talked a little bit about work integrated learning, and how that’s going to become more and more central going forward as the nature of work is changing and the labour market is changing.
Looking at cultural diversity as well, Ian [Marshman] was encouraging staff to take on roles in different countries to experience how things works, in different environments and different cultures etc. So I guess it’s the same with the labour market looking for students that have maybe experience life elsewhere?
I think there is a growing recognition, where employers are looking for those who have transversal skill sets, soft skills, adaptability, tolerance, independent thinking etc. I think there is a growing awareness now that those skills can be acquired when you study abroad.
Indeed, particularly with the independence of moving away from the whole family setup, friendship group etc.
I think that’s what is driving Australian students to study abroad. It’s also because of the government campaigns and awareness campaigns of the benefits of studying abroad. Now students are thinking “it might be worth it, doing a stint as a part of my degree in Indonesia or China, or wherever it might really help me when I graduate in the labour market”.
So how do you think, institutions are likely to change to accommodate growth in international higher education?
Particularly from the Australian perspective, there is going to be a stronger focus on student experience. Australia has been very lucky that we have had this steady supply of students from Asia coming to our shores. But because of the increased competition, we can’t afford to be complacent. There is a lot of other places students can go to now. There is going to be a stronger focus on student experience in terms of high quality education experience, accommodation, opportunities to engage with the local community, work experience. That’s something that will be more focused on, so that we can continue to be an attractive destination.
The student experience is a hot topic right now, it makes me question, why now and why hasn’t it also been a focus? I think Kate [Thorpe] was talking about calling students customers and giving consumers their product essentially, the best possible service, as you would, say, in retail or the travel industry. But why wasn’t this the way 10 years ago?
I think it is because of more competition, if we looked at 20years ago students in Asia wouldn’t have had the array of choices that they have now in terms of where to study. Now I think students have more choice. Even for domestic students in Australia, they are paying a lot for their degree. In the early 80s, it was free education and it was only in 1988 that we introduced fees. Once people start paying for it, they want value for money and start to question the value of the credential. It doesn’t automatically guarantee you a job, so if you are going to fork out $60,000 for a degree you kind of want to know that it will lead to somewhere. I think student are saying, ‘I’m paying all this money but I also want to know that I’m going to be employed at the end’. They are demanding things like work experience, they want some return on investment and that is particularly the case for international students as they are sacrificing more in terms of money and leaving their families.
So the journey to change and transformation is not always the easiest for any institution, what do you think are the biggest barriers to change and how do you bring those resistant to change on board?
I think often there are really great things happening in universities. In the last 10 years I’ve worked in two universities and they’ve all been fairly big. It’s the nature of all universities, they are large organisations with lots of different areas and there is a bit of a silo approach. Often there can be some really great things happening but you don’t necessarily know about them so I think one of the big challenges is bringing together people and encouraging more collaboration. An example of this is when I did some work for Universities Australia for their recent mobility project. I was invited, which wasn’t my idea it was their idea, to facilitate workshops in each state of Australia where they were bringing together the mobility office and the careers and employment office to try and work out how they could work together and link mobility and employability. These workshops were a huge success because often these two offices work side by side, they might even be in the same building, but never actually connect with each other. All we did was have a room with a few presentations and we gave them the opportunity to meet and talk. The feedback was really positive, they said we just don’t have that chance to connect and discuss ideas, and learn from each other. After the workshop the mobility office was saying that once students come back from learning abroad, we will encourage them to go to the careers office as they can help them package and leverage their experience for their career in terms of writing their CV or references or interviews. The careers office was then saying that they could also suggest to students that when they are looking to improve their employability they could encourage them consider overseas for a study tour. It was a really valuable exercise.
So sort of providing a change mobiliser? Sometimes, like you say, if they weren’t communicating with each other they weren’t coming up with the great ideas because they are working their day jobs etc. Providing them with a platform that says ‘let’s come together, let’s talk about change and what we can do’ opens up opportunities that perhaps weren’t there before.
Often there are people that are doing really great things that are hidden somewhere. It’s about finding the great individual academics that are doing really interesting stuff and it’s about promoting that and getting people to work together, which is a huge issue for universities because they are just so massive.
So what can HE providers do to encourage international study?
The barriers are often financial so scholarships or any financial aid are really important. Awareness is also key, often students aren’t aware of opportunities and this is particularly for disadvantaged groups. I remember talking to someone from Western Sydney University, which has a high proportion of students from low S.E.S backgrounds, and they were saying that a lot of students from these backgrounds would see these signs or promotions about mobility and it wouldn’t even occur that it was for them, thinking it is just for the rich kids. It’s about breaking down those stereotypes and perhaps tapping certain students on the shoulder and saying that this would be really great for you to do. I think short-term programs are a really great way for students that might not be willing or ready to go on a longer-term semester abroad. It gives them the opportunity to give them a taste of study abroad is all about; it could be quite transformational for someone that has never been overseas. It may be less scary as they would be in a group and more supported. Another factor would be room in the curriculum, often students in particular areas such as engineering, want to tick off all these units in order to get accreditation and they think they can’t afford to take three weeks off to go somewhere. It’s about providing a window in their curriculum, I think it is in the Netherlands that the government has made mandated that all courses must have a mobility window so that all students have that option. The application process also needs to be smooth; the complicated application process often puts students off. Finally, some institutions have quite strict GDP average for entry so if you are below that you are not allowed to, but there is a lot of research that shows that students who are struggling academically can really get a boost from this. It is the same as internships, they often only go to the brightest students who would do well anyway. Where as it’s the ones that are perhaps struggling or not getting the top grades that might really benefit from a mobility experience or an internship.
Why do you think the students will get a boost, from a program like this?
If you are struggling and wondering what you are doing while you are studying your course and then you are go on a study tour and find an interesting area in your field of study, it might be an incentive.
The short term stays are really interesting, because I was really sceptical about it when I started research in this space. We were wondering about “what could a student gain from two-weeks abroad?” Then I did a project at Deakin with a colleague, looking at the ‘New Colombo Plan’, and we interviewed students before and after and I completely changed my mind about it. Often these students had never been overseas, their parents never travelled, so they were often coming from backgrounds where this wasn’t part of their experience. I had one student, she was doing teaching and she went to Kuala Lumpur, she was in the outskirts of some suburb in an Islamic school. Hardly any of her students spoke English and she talked about going into a classroom one day and the supervisor didn’t turn up, so she had to take the class on her own. She was absolutely terrified but it was the most powerful experience for her. She said to me “At that moment I became a teacher”.
Depending on how the curriculum is designed, the two week program can be a transformational experience.
So why do you think the UK and the US are the most popular destination for learners to do a program?
They’ve got a reputation for high quality education, prestige, they are in English speaking countries. Countries like Malaysia and Singapore, would have cultural ties with the UK and it might be a tradition in the family to study in the UK. I think that’s probably the main reason, because they are seen as prestigious.
Do you think when the students go back home after studying abroad, it gives them an advantage or a boost in their career, making them more employable in the market?
When I have spoken to students who have gone home after studying abroad, they tell us that if you go to China with an Australian degree, these days it’s different than 20 years ago. You don’t automatically get a job, you need to be able to show the extra efforts, displaying that you have done some internships or volunteer work. Whereas if you studied in the UK or the USA, that might have a bit more impact. I think most students who come up to study in Australia, it might not be their first choice, it would be UK or US.
So if you were about to embark on an educatory course if you were 17 or 18, where would you choose to study?
I didn’t study abroad, because no one did it back in those days, everyone travelled when they were finished. I’ve lived for extensive period in Spain, in Guatemala. I really love Spanish and Latin culture, so probably Spain or Latin America.
Where did you study?
I studied at Monash and I did my PhD in Melbourne and then went overseas to London, then France. I studied French at university and I did an exchange back in school. I had no interest in learning Spanish, French was my language, but I wanted to continue living in Europe. So I decided to do the teaching course by Cambridge TOEFL that qualifies you for teaching. Later me and husband Andy were doing volunteer work in Grenada for two and a half years.
What were you doing out there?
In the UK it’s called VSO (Volunteer overseas Service), it’s a bit like that. Andy is an environmental scientist, working for a NGO and I was working at the University of San Carlos, which is the state university of Guatemala.
Wow you’re so well-travelled, which leads me nicely onto my final question. If you were stranded on a desert island with only one item, what would you like that item to be?
That’s such a tough one! I was going to say ‘a boat’ but actually I’d take my husband. He’s great in a crisis and would be great company – is that too cliché?