Acumen Leadership in Conversation— with Chris Bandy: Booming TNE interest, students are back and the future looks bright!

Chris Bandy is Executive Director for Australia & New Zealand at Acumen. Chris has over 12 years of international experience, with extensive exposure in the government and international education sectors, most recently as Investment and Trade Commissioner to South Asia and the Middle East, and Director at Invest and Trade WA for The Government of Western Australia.

He has also represented the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) and the Department of Foreign Affairs as Trade and Investment Commissioner in Indonesia. Chris has a Bachelor’s Degree in Asian Studies (Indonesian) and a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia.

So let’s recap the Australia and New Zealand marketplace. What happened in 2022?

From the Australian and New Zealand perspective, the borders reopened so that precipitated a return of international students. But they opened at different times around Australia, and then opened much later in New Zealand. So, what we saw was strong demand from students and overwhelming application volumes at a lot of the institutions across Australia.

But that was also met by a huge increase in demand for visa processing. So, there were a lot of universities saying that their numbers are back at pre-pandemic levels by way of interest, but just that the actual conversion rates and people starting on campus are not coming back as much as they would have liked because of the time to process visas. This is not a criticism of the respective governments as they too were impacted by overwhelming visa demand from a pent-up international student cohort.

With China not coming back the way that everyone thought it would, we’ve seen a real focus on South Asia and Southeast Asia, with a strong focus on Vietnam, and we are looking with increasing interest at the Latin American region.

What were the main struggles or complications that you heard clients and those in the industry talk about last year?

I’d say recruitment opportunities and TNE opportunities. Universities understand that they have to invest properly in offshore markets and it doesn’t make any sense for them to have a market prioritized as one of their top three if they’re not going to physically employ staff into the markets, whether that be by themselves or through a third priority provider.

Related to TNE, universities are cognisant of the growing opportunities and broader acceptance of TNE provision within overseas families and are looking deeply at this. TNE also adds value to a University’s sustainability agenda and this has also been a driver. India, with its changing regulatory landscape, looms large as a massive TNE opportunity for Australian and New Zealand providers.

Specifically for New Zealand, they really struggled with their closed borders being opened so much later than everyone else, not till August 2022. That put them another six to eight months behind the rest of the world. They’ve got fantastic institutions and they’ve faced some challenges but they’ve been pretty proactive and aggressive with some of their scholarship programs, so they’re making headway and seeing strong bounceback.

Do we expect these to continue in 2023?

Yes. China remains the big unknown and how that’s going to come back because as we know, everyone’s been very exposed to China previously. The university sector now has to understand that they need to continue with a diversification play and that opportunities exist for them in countries like India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Latin America. China will remain an incredible international education market.

What concerns face higher education in 2023?

From an Australian and New Zealand perspective, the big one’s competition from the UK, Europe and North America. I think, for a long time, Australian institutions have felt like the Southeast Asian region is their domain. But what we’re seeing now is just huge interest from the UK and increasingly from the US in that Southeast Asian market. It’s always been there but some are now more aggressive than others, for example, the Germans and Dutch in Indonesia.

What should the leaders be on the lookout for? Derailers, issues, legislation etc?

In the major markets of China and India, looking at Tier Two and Tier Three cities, there are significant associated risks of going into these cities. But what you do have in those cities is a capacity to pay so it’s still a viable strategy to ‘diversify’ into these cities.

There are also changes to TNE and higher education legislation mooted in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines so watching these markets with interest will be really important for education professionals.

Will the higher education market in Australia and New Zealand be affected by rising inflation and a looming recession, and if so how?

Domestic student cohorts may shrink with inflation and recession in Australia and New Zealand because people will need to work as opposed to study in order to survive. But from an international perspective, I think the demand will still be strong although price sensitivity and cost are always a concern. There are institutions that have a price point of up to AUD60,000 annually and then some that have a price point of around AUD15,000. So I think you need to understand the market that you’re heading into and market yourself appropriately.

I also think there’s a strong and increasing interest in transnational education and providers looking to deliver offshore. I think that will mitigate this somewhat because it will be an additional revenue stream for the universities but will also provide a high-quality international education at a more affordable price point which I think is good for everyone.

What trends can we expect to emerge or continue in 2023?

I think TNE. Previously, there were only a handful of Australian and New Zealand institutions that actually did TNE in its purest form which was full offshore delivery. But now we’re seeing really strong interest in delivering completely in a foreign market. Also, we’re seeing a lot of universities discussing articulation agreements and looking at international partners to at least deliver part of their degrees internationally.

Outside of TNE, ELICOS providers are seeing strong demand out of Latin America, Turkey and Thailand and the demand for VET courses to satisfy skills gaps in emerging countries is strong but the perennial issue of price-point for offshore delivery remains.

Where should leaders in higher education invest their time, money, or resources?

Universities are aware it is difficult to recruit effectively with a fly-in, fly-out model. There’s just too much going on all the time. You need to have a consistent in-country presence to support you on your student recruitment initiatives and to ensure that agents are operating as they should be.

Then the turnaround time of your offers is important because it’s hugely competitive and most students accept the first offer they get because they want to maximize the amount of time they’ve got to get their visas sorted.

What is your overall outlook in 2023 for higher education?

I’m really optimistic. The world is getting back to, and I’m not even going to say a ‘new normal’, it’s just getting back to normal as borders open.

What do you hope to happen?

I hope growth happens in 2023. We’ve come out of a period where economies have been really hurt through the pandemic, but also our university partners have been hurting through the pandemic. Having international students makes our countries and our cities better, so I just want to see all of our wonderful international students back and helping our university colleagues developing partnerships is the way to do that.

Check out more from Acumen leadership in conversation for more reflections, insights, and predictions for 2023.