Instead of riding off into the sunset after building a billion-dollar juggernaut, international education pioneer Rod Jones is embracing one of his biggest professional challenges.
In June, Mr Jones will transition from running global education group Navitas, which was named by Forbes in 2014 as one of the world’s top 25 most innovative growth companies, to become chairman of StudyPerth, a Western Australian government-backed entity entrusted with reversing an alarming trend of falling international student numbers.
At the same time international education has become a boon for eastern states economies, with the most up to date data indicating 2017 was a record year for the sector nationally, WA recorded its lowest number of foreign students since 2014.
Data from the Department of Education and Training showed enrolments by foreign students in WA fell by 3.5 per cent in 2017, while rising by 12.6 per cent in Queensland 10.8 per cent in New South Wales and 7.1 per cent in Victoria over the same period.
Despite the overall fall, the number of Chinese student enrolments in WA rose by around 700 in 2017 to 5,811.
However, the numbers were a stark contrast to Chinese enrolments in NSW, which increased by more than 10,000 to 62,395.
Mr Jones said one of the contributing factors to the low level of Chinese students choosing WA was the lack of a coordinated approach by the state’s educational institutions.
“They’ve been each out trying to do their own thing, and I think there’s been a recognition that these institutions working together to promote this state is an extremely important way in assisting to turn around the situation we’ve got at the moment, where students are basically not coming here,” Mr Jones told Australia China Business Review.
“You can see evidence of that in what has happened in other states, Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland all have very strong policies around the attraction of international students and have been prepared to fund it.
“The funding in general has been between $20 million and $30 million each year in each of those states, so there is significant money being put in by the states to support the international education industry.
“In fact, international education in Victoria is the largest export earner for that state, and it’s a huge value add also in New South Wales and Queensland.
“Even if you look at South Australia, they are punching above their weight in terms of international students per capita, whereas WA is about 3 or 4 per cent below our demographic.”
Mr Jones, whose first role in education was working within the state government to assist universities in attracting foreign students, said the lack of collaboration between educational institutions was a stark contrast to the early days of Australian educational exports.
The current era of international education began in the mid to late 1980s, with WA’s institutions at the forefront of what was to become a revolution for the sector.
“If you look back at those early days, the way we worked together as a group of Western Australian institutions was really quite exciting, in that we were able to work together in a cooperative yet competitive way,” he said.
“We ended up in those early days having about 25 per cent of the international students in Australia studying in Perth.
“There were a number of things that have changed that.
“One was that when Melbourne and Sydney, the two biggest cities, began marketing themselves hard, they could offer a big-city experience that Perth couldn’t, and for many of the Chinese that was an interesting thing.
“Perth was seen as a bit of a backwater in the sense that it didn’t have the big-city lifestyle that many of these students were used to.
“It seemed to be quiet, certainly the quality of the education was never in question, nor the quality of the state itself in terms of facilities etcetera, but it certainly was not the big-city experience.”
Mr Jones hailed the McGowan government’s moves to revitalise international education, saying it had already shown a greater commitment to the sector than any previous government, but said the situation would be difficult to overcome without additional commitments by the state’s universities.
“I think it’s now more of a marketing problem, there is no question that Perth’s profile is not well understood in China and, in fact if anything, it’s probably gone backwards,” Mr Jones said.
“Generally what students will do is they will make a choice of which country they want to go study in, then they look to find the institution within that country that meets their needs, generally it’s a city then an institution.
“What we are seeing at the moment is the only thing that they are really being presented with as options are institutions in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
“But South Australia has demonstrated that you can, if you put in the right effort, lift your profile and attract more students.
“Not everybody wants to go to a big city, and South Australia has outperformed by doing things in an appropriate, structured way, with a good strategy, and sufficient funding.
“Secondly there were some changes made around 18 months ago to the migration scheme, and that, no question, has had a significant impact on students coming here.
“One of the benefits that we did have through that scheme, is if students were interested in migration as part of their future plan, staying in Perth and studying in Perth gave them additional points towards migration.
“I think we have lost out significantly because of that change.”
One of Mr Jones’ first moves when he joins StudyPerth will be to work with WA’s various educational institutions to develop a new non-government funding model to ensure as many resources are available to promote WA in countries such as China as there are in other states.
“(Educational institutions) are the beneficiaries of the funds that are being paid, so it is worth their while to invest more in a cooperative, coordinated way through an entity such as StudyPerth, to lift the profile of the state, because in the end if we can build the pie, then everybody will win,” Mr Jones said.
“There is a genuine interest being shown by universities at this stage to be able to commit to a level of funding, and if we are able to achieve that then I believe we will also achieve additional funding from government.
“The aim will be to build up an amount of funds that will allow us to achieve what needs to be done and really match what is happening in other states.
“In saying that, this is not going to be something you can just throw money at and turn it around in just three months, it’s probably a two-year exercise.
“But if we can achieve it, if we can build up the numbers of international students to meet our demographic profile, that would add something like $1.5 billion to the state, it would increase international students by about 30,000 and would create another 5,000 jobs.”