Innovating ‘below the radar’ Australian Higher Education Links with Latin America

Wendy Jarvie

In 2004 the Australian Government Department of Education Science and Training (DEST) opened an education office in Santiago, Chile. The initiative turned out to be highly successful.  In terms of students enrolled the region grew from 7,000 to 34,000 over 5 years – and was the fastest growing of all regions over the 2004-2008 period.

Formal and informal academic links strengthened significantly; and countries, Colombia and Chile in particular, used Australian education expertise to reform their education systems. More Australian students started studying Spanish and took up student exchanges in Latin America.  It is estimated that the benefit to Australia of the initiative, in terms of student based export income alone, was over $760m over a 5 year period, for an Australian government outlay of less than $10m.

Where did the policy come from?

The main instigators were a group of public servants working within the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST). Over 2002 they had been looking at the risks associated with the Australia’s international education industry. One vulnerability was the narrow geographic base that students came from – overwhelmingly from Asia, particularly China.

Any downturn or scare in China, could decimate the industry. So they proposed a proactive approach – putting  education officials  in different parts of the world, including the Middle East and Latin America, with an enhanced promotion budget, but working not just on the education market, but on a broad strengthening of education relationships, including in science and research.

They were helped by the fact that the Council on Australian Relations with Latin America (COALAR), formed some 18 months previously, had been lobbying for a strengthening of education links.

Why was the initiative successful?

The unexpected success of the initiative was due to a number of factors, but first and foremost was the creative implementation.

Creative implementation

Knowing something is new seemed to spur the agencies involved to unusual levels of cooperation both on the ground in Santiago, Chile, where the education office was opened,  and back in Canberra.   The education counsellor recruited to run the office by AEI was imaginative and strategic, and knew how to make a small amount of money go a long way. He had to be creative – with only himself and 3 staff and 22 countries to cover. He also had to be highly strategic and focus on activities that removed barriers to students wishing to come to Australia, and raised awareness of the quality of Australian education.  In line with the AEI philosophy of management, he was given a budget and left to make the most of it. The desk in Canberra supported him.  With little knowledge in Canberra, it was the logical thing to do.

Working in partnership

Australian government officials from the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Austrade, and the then Department of Immigration and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), and supported by Council on Australian Latin American Relations (COALAR) funding, worked in partnership. This is itself was highly unusual.

Education agents (who recruited students for education institutions in Australia) were helped to improve their knowledge of Australia, and were treated as valued partners.  Countries were offered help to reform their education systems and delegations of education officials were supported to visit  Australia and see both the quality of Australian education and where Australian experience and expertise could assist their countries.  The Australia education Minister as well as senior education bureaucrats made visits to support the initiative.

Australian education institutions – in particular universities and some VET providers – saw the opportunity to diversity their student body.  They increased student recruitment and developed academic links. State governments, particularly the Queensland government, became more active.

Alignment

Visa and student market policy was aligned – student visa Assessment Levels (AL) were adopted that were less restrictive, reflecting the actuality that serious visa breaches were relatively rare.

Timing

The other factors were timing and students.  Australia chose its timing well – there was rising prosperity across the Latin American continent, and Colombia and Chile in particular were looking outward and away from the USA.  Australia was new to Latin America; students loved the lifestyle, particularly in Sydney and the Gold Coast corridor; and part-time work was easy to get. At the same time Australian students became interested in Latin America – driven by a mixture of word of mouth, music, and meeting Latin American students in Australia.

Overall

This is an example of ‘below the radar’ innovation – innovation that was conceived by public servants and carried out away from mainstream media attention. It was agreed by government because

  • It was unobtrusive,  part of a larger package of more conventional elements
  • It was part of coherent package, addressing key opportunities and risks in the International education export industry.
  • Ignorance of Latin America among central agencies

It was successfully implemented through:

  • Great team on the ground in Santiago with
    • Clear strategy, focusing on quick wins, within a longer term framework
    • Significant decision-making autonomy
  • Public servants in Canberra saw their role as supporting the Santiago team, not controlling them.
  • Genuine enthusiasm and support from other government agencies and whole of government collaboration through COALAR funding, Minister, and senior executive.
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