From the Vice-Chancellor

Global is not optional

Professor Margaret Gardner AC, President and Vice-Chancellor | Monash Life | 3 minute read

Internationalism benefits us too, says Vice-Chancellor Professor Margaret Gardner AC.

Over the past couple of decades, Australian universities have internationalised. We have increased the number of international students we educate. We have expanded our campuses into new territories. And as a result, some commentators have pushed back. They worry that we are focused on economics, not education. They query whether in broadening horizons we’re diluting the culture. They wonder why we make all this effort for non-Australians. There is no question that internationalisation has an impact on our local community, but – and here’s the thing – that impact is overwhelmingly positive.

Take students. At Monash, internationalisation is about giving our students the education they are going to need to thrive in the 21st century.

Today’s students benefit from what we call the Global Immersion Guarantee (GIG). Previously, we used to see the standard study abroad experience: better-off students – who already had passports – spent a semester in an English-speaking economy. In contrast, our GIG is part of the curriculum; Monash funds it, and a huge number of students who didn’t have passports acquire them.

Critically, students go to where we have campuses: Malaysia, China, India and Indonesia – as well as our Prato Centre in Italy – to engage in projects which force them to think through challenges in that place. That’s where new understanding and new ways of thinking come from. Suddenly, you don’t ask the energy transition question in the same way. You’re informed by issues that sound the same but manifest differently. These students are hugely more skilled – and able to apply those skills when they return to Australia. So, it’s no surprise that GIG has lifted grades – and student satisfaction.

In the same way, research isn’t just about asking a question and answering it. It’s about being able to engage with all the people your work touches so that you can understand the question properly – and then have a better chance of returning an effective answer. It’s the impact of knowing how people in Mumbai understand the waste problem, or understanding how they think about education, compared to yours. I look at our international projects, such as Revitalising Informal Settlements and their Environments (RISE) or the World Mosquito Program, and I see people working on the ground, with communities, building capability. That’s what I think is happening in internationalisation, and that is what we are doing at Monash.

Of course, economics is a critical factor, but much of the discussion over the past 20 years has focused on the benefit to universities themselves – while ignoring the economic impact on the communities we serve. In Victoria, international education is our number one export. It’s the third-biggest service export in Australia, and during the two pandemic years, it fell from $40bn to $20bn. It’s hard to think of another industry where the impact was as dramatic.

Indeed, many people still don’t realise how deeply international education is intertwined with the economy.

But consider tourism: how many of the people who travel to Australia come because their loved ones are studying here and decide to combine the visit? How many are people who once studied here, coming back to have a holiday in the place that they remember fondly? We’re in a time of labour and skills shortages: students are part of the workforce too.

But perhaps the most hidden impact of internationalisation is in the impact on Australia’s soft power – and how that soft power can deliver hard benefits on the world stage, especially when it comes to diplomatic and trade relations. Talk to negotiators of free trade agreements with countries in our region, for example, and they’ll tell you how great it is when someone who’s studied in Australia is on the other side of the table. Suddenly, the understanding of everything changes – from culturally different ways of approaching a topic to how you might negotiate. Having people who understand you is particularly important when the negotiation is a one-off.

True internationalisation means engaging with a diversity of assumptions and cultures. It means looking at a question from multiple perspectives and spending time with people who weren’t educated just like you. It should be uncomfortable – and illuminating. Because fundamentally, that’s what really great education is about.

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