The U.S. and Australia: Learning From Each Other

The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia are the three primary English-speaking destinations of international students worldwide. Among the three, Australia has the most centralized, proactive international education policies and, arguably, the most highly developed international student data collection system in the world.

As editor of the Open Doors Report, the U.S. international student data collection effort, I was the lucky recipient of a 2012 Australian Government Endeavour Executive Award to conduct research on international student data collection methods and practices in Australia. While in Australia, I was graciously hosted by the International Research and Analysis Unit of Australian Education International (AEI), IIE’s highly valued Project Atlas partner.

International fellowships such as the Endeavour Award provide excellent opportunities for the in-depth exploration of mobility issues by allowing research staff at peer organizations to learn about research and data collection practices in other countries. 

Here a few things I learned during my fellowship:

Are Chinese students choosing the U.S. over Australia? At first blush, it looks as if Chinese student enrollment in the U.S. has increased substantially over the past five years while Australia has seen first a flattening and then a decline (fig. 1).

However, breaking down the data by type of study, you discover that this is not actually the case. Declines in Chinese enrollments in Australia are confined to the English language and vocational education sectors. The number of Chinese students enrolled in higher education in Australia continued to increase through 2011, albeit at a slower rate (fig. 2). So the answer is no—both countries are seeing increases in the number of Chinese students.

Is government intervention a blessing? The higher level of government oversight and support of international education in Australia has a number of consequences for data collection. While compulsory data submission and unrestricted access to data and are major benefits of government-mandated data collection, all that glitters is not gold. Educational institutions that do not receive government funding are not included in government data collection. This includes substantial portions of the vocational education and English language sectors, both of which conduct their own independent data collections.

Competition vs. collaboration.  Cultural differences, such as the stronger sense of corporatism in Australia, also play a role in facilitating data collection. Educational institutions and providers in the U.S. often operate in a competitive framework, where peer institutions are considered rivals or benchmarks. As such, institutions and providers may be unwilling to provide data to a third party, which may be used to competitor’s advantage. Improving the performance of the U.S. as a whole in the global marketplace is generally not a consideration, although institutions may band together locally as city and/or state consortia to promote study in their immediate region. Australia, with a smaller population and smaller total number of institutions, is more likely to band together at the national level, and this is reflected in the relative success of national data collection efforts.

The most important thing I learned? You have to take the time to delve into the details. Sound bites and top line numbers just don’t cut it, no matter how fast they fly across the ticker in this day and age.