As economies around the world continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian government is looking to restore the education sector’s status as a major export industry.
Engineers Australia has responded to an inquiry into the international education sector conducted by the federal government’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
The committee has produced a number of recommendations, many of which relate directly to the engineering sector, to help the industry build back after contracting due to border closures during the pandemic.
“The hearing sought to understand experiences and opportunities, particularly from an international student perspective, including to identify opportunities for international students and graduates within the region,” said Bernadette Foley, Engineers Australia’s General Manager, Professional Standards.
“We do know that international students study in Australia because our education system is well regarded, and they can graduate with an internationally recognised Washington Accord degree, which then provides international mobility.”
Some of the committee recommendations related particularly to work in which Engineers Australia was already engaged, Foley said.
“The first recommendation is for the government [to] engage with the international education sector and industry bodies to develop and implement a targeted strategy to educate employers on the benefits of engaging international students and graduates,” she said.
“We’d absolutely support that recommendation — and that goes to demystifying for employers opportunities and perceived barriers.
“This applies for both graduate opportunities and also for placement opportunities during their studies.”
One example of this is Engineers Australia’s Internship Hub, which helps students find high-quality placements and gain valuable real-world experience.
“It’s critically important for them to get those placements in order to graduate, but also to have that real life experience,” said Samantha Zdjelar, Engineers Australia’s General Manager, Customer Experience.
“We ran an international student pilot in the Northern Territory — through funding from Study NT’s Student Wellbeing Grants program — to allow us to be the conduit between industry and an international student and get them work experience. There were students that found successful roles out of that.”
This pilot, which will be continued in future years, included networking opportunities, events connecting students with senior engineers, and work integrated learning sessions.
Integrated learning and removing barriers
Another government recommendation arising from the report would establish a national work integrated learning framework that provides oversight of work-integrated learning placements.
The committee also advised the government to take a proactive, interventionist approach in reviewing unreasonable barriers to qualified international student graduates filling skills shortage roles that are imposed by professional accreditation bodies.
Engineers Australia evaluates engineering courses through its Australian Engineering Accreditation Centre, but the organisation was able to inform the committee that its actions as an accrediting body were not forming a barrier to international student success.
“From an engineering perspective, accreditation is not a barrier,” Foley said.
“But then some of the barriers relate to misinformation and a lack of understanding from the employer’s perspective, and we were able to point to some examples where we had been successful in demystifying some of that for industry.
“Anything that we can do to support employers navigating requirements and demystify challenges to demonstrate how it can work, the better.”
Addressing skills shortages
That, Zdjelar said, was an important message for industry to hear, considering the skills shortages facing the nation.
“International students studying engineering undertake the same degree as Australia students, but international students are not getting the work placements or getting the same work opportunities as their local counterparts.
“So it could go a long way to helping with that acquisition of graduates for employers, if they opened themselves up to new possibilities.”
And more and more companies are seeing the value in recruiting international students, Zdjelar said.
“There are organisations that are now getting through the perceived visa issues and are looking [for international students] because of the lack of graduates that we have in engineering,” she said.
And continuing that trend, Zdjelar explained, would be important in boosting the international education sector.
“Australia is becoming a less attractive destination for international students, because of the lack of employment or ability to stay in the country,” she said.
“If we aren’t providing great opportunities to give people work experience and have that potential to permanently stay in the country, we are becoming a less attractive proposition.”