More Australian students studying abroad would benefit education exports

New research has found that more Australian students studying abroad would complement Australia’s high inbound student flows, and, by increased reciprocity, help address perceptions of Australia’s export education sector as highly transactional.

But the report shows there are currently multiple barriers to learning outside Australia for students within Australia’s VET and higher education system.

The researchers specifically examined exchanges between Australia and India, with a special focus on work integrated learning (WIL), although many of the findings are expected to be applicable to exchanges with other nations.

Dr Brigid Freeman and Dr Karen Barker from the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute (AII) led the study, commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Education.

Research context

Since early 2020, much attention has focused on the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic for higher education, as universities around the world transformed teaching and learning, while increasingly considering the student experience. More recently, interest has shifted to policy and practice shifts required to transform higher education for the post-COVID era.

Higher education institutions in countries that host a large proportion of the 5.6 million international students globally – the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Russia and France – have also carefully monitored fluctuating international student enrolments, institutional financial performance, and staffing levels.

While higher education institutions and many workplaces pivoted learning and operations online during this time, few studies have been published regarding systemic or institutional responses to work integrated learning (WIL).

In 2021, while Australia’s national borders, along with many universities and workplaces remained closed, Dr Freeman and Dr Barker explored barriers to, and opportunities for cross-border work integrated learning for students enrolled with Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) providers and higher education institutions.

Encouraging outbound student flows  from Australia

The Australian Government’s National Colombo Plan (NCP) Mobility Program encourages Australian university undergraduate students to participate in study tours, internships, practicums and research in the Indo-Pacific region. In 2021, this program sponsored approximately 1000 students to engage with India for virtual WIL and study opportunities. NCP-funded opportunities for in-person cross-border engagement once again exist now that international borders have reopened.

The researchers say giving students incentives to participate in cross-border WIL activities with Indian host organisations would be consistent with broader commitments extending the relationship from inbound international student mobility, defence and security co-operation, and trade and investment.

“Fortunately, there are many studies about WIL in Australia thanks to the Australian Collaborative Education Network, the Universities Australia audit of Australian universities in 2017, and VET sector research,” the researchers say.

“There’s also an extensive body of research regarding international education illustrated by the work of the International Education Association of Australia and leadingscholars’ work on internationalstudents .

“However, knowledge about the ways students enrolled with Australian universities, non-university higher education providers and VET providers look offshore for WIL associated with (or subsequent to) their studies is more limited. There also appear to be few studies exploring ways students in India connect with industry (and other hosts) for internships.”

Conducting the research

The Australian Government Department of Education commissioned the AII to develop models for cross-border WIL, specifically focussed on Australia-India engagement for students of Australia’s VET and higher education institutions. The models could incorporate face-to-face, online, and/or hybrid modes of learning with Indian host organisations based in India, or elsewhere (including Australia and third countries).

What the team did:

  • Canvassed the literature regarding barriers to participation (eg finances, expectations, information, health and safety), and quality features (eg authenticity, relevance, assessment, inclusivity, reflection, and post-activity evaluation)
  • Analysed requirements stipulated by government and professional associations, and in institutional policies that together establish the broad parameters for students’ WIL activity in Australia and offshore
  • Conducted interviews and focus groups involving 50 informants from VET and higher education sectors in Australia and India, to offset the limited amount of literature regarding outbound WIL and internships in India
  • Analysed this wealth of data to identify barriers to offshore WIL in India, discern good practices in terms of such opportunities, and develop Australia-India WIL models.

What the team found:

  • There are multiple barriers to offshore WIL in India for students of Australia’s VET and higher education institutions including cost, insurance, fear, limited interest, availability of hosts, and issues around inclusivity
  • At least some of these barriers will be relevant to cross-border opportunities pursued by students of Australia’s system in other countries
  • Addressing these barriers and increasing outward-facing WIL would introduce an important element of reciprocity into Australia’s export education sector, given the dominance of inbound flows.

Suggested practices and models

Four good practices

The researchers discerned four good practices to support successful WIL, including preparation, having familiar hosts, prioritisation of niche industry sectors, and conducting offshore WIL in tandem with other internationalisation efforts, such as study tours.

“These good practices would likely have relevance to other countries,” they say.

“Embedding good practices could encourage increased participation and improve outcomes for students, hosts, and participating institutions.

“Our research suggests that Australia-India WIL activities that involve a range of hosts in India address inclusivity issues, accommodate different modes and can be conducted in tandem with other activities such as study tours should be pursued to complement existing Australia-India teaching and learning engagements.”

Four Australia-India WIL models

Researchers described four Australia-India WIL models, each of which could well have application to other countries. The models reflect learnings from COVID-19 disruptions and look to the future. Together, they illustrate a trajectory of engagement of students, institutions, and host organisations in WIL activities. Over time, participants progressing along this trajectory could meaningfully increase Australia-India WIL engagement by building sustainable relationships and mutual advantage.

In summary they are first, extra-curricular activities with peers in India (such as hackathons, industry certification). Second, online internships with Indian hosts in Australia (for example projects or case studies). Third, placement-based WIL activities with Indian hosts in Australia (placements, fieldwork, internships etc), and finally, placement-based WIL activities offshore in India, which could be stand-alone, or conducted in concert with study tours.


Brigid Freeman and Karen Barker, Opportunities to increase Australia-India WIL engagement

Brigid Freeman and Karen Barker, Building the evidence base for cross-border WIL models


Commissioned and funded by the Australian Government Department of Education.

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First published on 8 February 2023.

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