Internationalising regional Australia: a case for change

Attracting more international students to regional Australia presents many advantages for students, education providers and communities alike, write Heather Cavanagh and Tom Burton.


International education has become one of the great Australian success stories, particularly over the last 20 years. Australia’s fourth largest export has driven economic and social outcomes for our nation, our people and our partners. In doing so, the national economy has transitioned from a significant reliance on resources to a greater focus on services.

However, the ‘Australian experience’ – so valued by international students – is becoming increasingly challenging in metropolitan Australia. The opportunity to study in one of regional Australia’s world-class education institutions provides a host of unique opportunities for a range of stakeholders. However, to date, regional Australia hasn’t promoted the benefits of study in a regional areas as best we could: world-standard academic programs; clean, healthy, safe and secure environment; lower cost of living and welcoming communities.

Further, regional communities and education providers haven’t fully embraced the broader benefits of international education. Beyond economic growth, these benefits include social diversity, the development of global citizens, vibrant and sustainable communities and a widening the pool of future skilled employees.

Charles Sturt University alumnus Dr Saba Nabi is a great contributor to her local community in Wagga Wagga.


Diversifying communities

International students bring a wealth of benefits to regional Australia. They help diversify regional communities, facilitate and enrich cultural development. They bring diverse perspectives to the classroom which, in turn, stimulate new ways of thinking for Australian students and assists with the development of global perspectives.

Many of our regional towns and cities are not culturally diverse. The Australian Census 2016 determined that 83 per cent of the overseas-born population in Australia lived in a capital city, compared with 61 per cent of the Australian-born population (ABS). Providing Australian students with opportunities for broader exposure to international perspectives is therefore critical in preparing them for their employment future and to their role as global citizens.

Simultaneously, international students contribute to increasing cultural awareness and diversity in regional Australian communities. They help support regional sustainability by contributing to the local economy through the funding that international students bring. Case studies have even shown that the relative contribution of international education to regional communities is greater than is seen in metropolitan communities. A regional snapshot from NSW in 2015 indicated that international education had contributed to 2.5 per cent of Gross Regional Product, which is significantly above the 1.0 per cent national average (Deloitte 2015, p.31).

The Australian Census 2016 determined that 83 per cent of the overseas-born population in Australia lived in a capital city, compared with 61 per cent of the Australian-born population (ABS).


Our future (potential) employees

International students are, however, also potential future employees. They contribute to regional communities through workplace learning and casual employment throughout their courses and after they graduate if they pursue post-study work rights (PSWR). These formal and informal engagements also lead to the potential for regional businesses, councils, communities and professions to form future close links with other countries; thus aiding export/import potential. This is not to mention additional opportunities provided by graduates remaining in the regions for post-graduation employment and/or establishing their own small business.

Sustainability and driving research

Increasing the proportion of regionally-based international students would also contribute to the sustainability of education providers themselves. International students are often interested in disciplines not necessarily in high demand from domestic students. Retaining offerings of those low (domestic) demand programs – particularly those associated with regional skills shortages – is a major challenge for regional providers. Such programs would be significantly supported by a greater number of international students.

Simultaneously, through increased master and higher degree research (HDR) student enrolments, international students have the potential to significantly contribute to the research output of these universities. Many regional campuses have a strong focus on applied research and impact. Many focus on research associated with agriculture (food security), environmental sustainability and management (e.g. water security), regional economic development and provision of key human services to ensure regional sustainability (health and culture). The knowledge gained by this research demonstrates impact across the globe.

When this is all combined with the Australian Government’s recent announcement of regional scholarships and an additional one year of post-study work rights, we have a unique selling point as a destination for international students. Encouraging and facilitating international students to undertake their studies in regional Australia will provide significant advantages to students, education providers and communities alike – advantages that extend far beyond economics.

Study in regional Australia offers students an opportunity for world-class education, an outstanding student experience and high graduate employment. Increasing the proportion of international students in the regions can also showcase Australia as leading the way in supporting regional sustainability and economic development, while continuing to build Australia’s brand as a world-class study destination.

Professor Heather Cavanagh is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Development & Industry at Charles Sturt University. Tom Burton is Director, Global Engagement & Partnerships at Charles Sturt University.