Latin America pivot ‘no easy matter’ for Australian universities

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While Australia’s government has pressed universities to diversify their recruitment of foreign students, a government-hosted forum has heard that Canberra is part of the problem.

International education specialist Guie Hartney said educational links with Latin America, a region often heralded as an antidote to universities’ overreliance on Chinese and Indian students, had been hampered by a lack of government attention.

The region barely rated a mention in government press releases and announcements, she told a webinar organised by the federal education department. This discouraged “buy-in” from universities and colleges.

“There’s been a need for more explicit commitment from our governments that Latin America presents real opportunities for Australia,” she said.

Education minister Alan Tudge has exhorted universities to broaden their overseas student recruitment, citing “constant feedback” about courses dominated by students from China and India.

“Currently, just two countries account for more than 55 per cent of all international student enrolments at universities,” he said in a recent speech. “Not only does concentration limit the diversity of perspectives in classrooms; it also lowers the resilience of the international education sector to changes in global demand.”

Ms Hartney, a former Latin America director for Macquarie and Griffith universities who now heads international relations and global partnerships at the University of Southern Queensland, co-authored a 2018 report on educational engagement with the region. She cited positive signs in the report’s release and a “growing footprint” of state and federal government offices in the region.

“The recent call for diversity from Minister Tudge will hopefully help propel some of these initiatives,” she told the webinar.

Craig Ford, Australia’s newly appointed trade and investment commissioner for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, outlined the hurdles universities faced in cultivating business in the region.

He said Australia lacked relationships with local education agents, who controlled up to 90 per cent of student recruitment, while competition from the US – which already attracted almost half of international enrolments from some neighbouring countries – was surging for “obvious reasons”.

Other challenges included students’ price sensitivity and unwillingness to travel, a lack of government scholarships in most countries and low-level English language skills in some. And while South America’s most populous nations of Brazil and Colombia figured among the world’s top five source countries for English language and vocational students, comparatively few progressed to higher education.

Mr Ford said approaches that had “worked really well for Australia in the past” would not translate in Latin America. “We can’t compare this region to south-east Asia or north-east Asia,” he warned.

While there was “no silver bullet” to drive Australian success in Latin America, the best approach would be to convert the “sheer volume of interest” in vocational and language courses into higher education enrolments. Universities should also develop more online and hybrid courses for the region.

“But you’ve got to include agents,” he added. “Agents are still going to be the most important channel moving forward.”

Ms Hartney said universities should construct their Latin American educational offerings around industries such as agricultural technology. “This is one area where Australia has very good capabilities [that] match gaps in many Latin American countries.”

She said that with government guidance and coordination, Australian players could band together to offer education in English, technical skills and administration as well as industry-focused research.

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