Now Reading: How our strength as an international university is growing through a pandemic

How our strength as an international university is growing through a pandemic

International education has been the backbone of the Australian economy for some time. After iron ore and coal, higher education has become our third-largest export – worth $37.6 billion. It is a significant contributor to Australia’s global connections in areas spanning cultural, business and scientific ties.

But in the aftermath of a worldwide pandemic, where travel has been all but halted, Australia’s higher education sector seems to be in free-fall. With borders closed, notions of global citizenship and internationalisation are now being fundamentally tested.

It is predicted that with reduced international enrolments, universities will be sent into a tailspin, threatening the viability of at least half the sector. It is also suggested that some Australian universities may have to merge to survive the crisis.

So, what does this mean for internationalisation and Australian education? And where does Torrens University Australia sit within this tumultuous landscape?

As a global university, Torrens University has been designed differently

As Australia’s newest university in twenty years, Torrens University has been informed by examples of best practice and innovation achieved throughout the Laureate International Universities network. This global muscle meant Torrens University brought a different perspective to Australian higher education.

“At the forefront of our thinking is our responsibility as Australia’s global university. At this time of closed borders and an increase in nationalism, we remain unwavering in our commitment to global citizenship, diversity and tolerance,” says Torrens University Australia President Linda Brown.

“Since 2014, we have created an institution fuelled by an entrepreneurial and global perspective, founded in employability and in a belief that our students will connect the world for good.”

This foundation has meant that in 2020 Torrens University has maintained a steady hand on the tiller throughout the pandemic, retaining almost all of its overseas students – an extraordinary achievement.

When asked how, President Linda Brown replies, “because being international is not simply about overseas students – it’s about having a global mindset.”

Torrens University has always been part of global networks. First and foremost, it was part of Laureate International Universities – driven by an ethos of being Here for Good and being connected to institutions across the globe.

“Being a global network changes your attitude – because you’re not allowed to be insular. You have to understand your work in a relationship to a worldwide movement of education,” says Brown.

Now, Torrens University embarks on a new chapter with Strategic Education, Inc – but the global ties remain stronger than ever.

Brown emphasises that being part of the global network continues to deeply inform the way they manage Torrens University.

“For instance, we are on calls weekly with institutions in Brazil, in Colombia, and in the United States. In those conversations, we take a more global perspective about higher education, and how we design our business,” Brown explains.

“Many of the Executive Leadership team spend significant amounts of the week in conversation with counterparts around the world – in different time zones, but with a shared belief in bringing innovation, employability and economic mobility to higher education.”

Brown says this is something that has shaped her belief in “Education Without Borders”.

“I truly believe students are looking for a global education solution – that their values are global, and we have to meet them. This is why I say Torrens University is part of a global movement.”

How does this thinking manifest at Torrens University? Brown says “Education Without Borders” means that they can and should do things differently.

“Whether it’s developing a global youth change makers’ short course with the International Youth Foundation and B Lab, or whether it’s how and where we employ staff. One example is Torrens University has 20 staff located in Colombia.”

Internationalisation in a new framework

As a concept, internationalisation is characterised by global-mindedness with respect to the growth of the knowledge society. It’s seen as the means of integrating international and intercultural aspects into all aspects of a university – teaching, research, industry partnerships and academic exchanges. This may extend to building social and economic capacity in developing countries.

Torrens University has adopted an ambitious strategy in respect of internationalisation. Rather than focusing narrowly on international recruitment from the largest student markets, it has taken a truly global approach. The University now has over 11,000 international students from 118 countries, enrolled across Australia and New Zealand. It also boasts 110 international staff, across 30 nationalities, located in 20 cities around the world.

Torrens University Vice President International Mark Falvo says this is the culmination of five years of work which has allowed the institution to create a strong footprint in emerging markets.

“We’ve always looked at our nationality mix as not just the best thing to have in the classroom, but absolutely business critical if we are to achieve our ultimate purpose. But it takes time to build up a reputation, a recruitment platform, a footprint in terms of sales in the market to ensure a truly diverse mix of nationalities.”

By nationality mix, Falvo means that every classroom, and every learning experience is designed to ensure a strong mixture of nationalities – a genuine tapestry of cultures coming together in the learning spaces of Torrens University Australia. Falvo points out that the close work with agent partners across the world is critical to achieving this diverse mix, as are Torrens University’s extensive international partnerships.

The fruits of that labour are already showing in the results, with Torrens University Australia now the number one destination in Australia for Latin American students. And the university has its sights set on other non-traditional markets.

“We see opportunities in Africa, in Latin America, in the Asia Pacific. If you look at the population base of Africa, Nigeria alone has 200 million students. There is an extraordinary opportunity to connect students around the world to high quality and affordable higher education.”

Petra Eckerova is Director, International Recruitment at Torrens University. She explains that what has made Torrens University successful in international recruitment is simply lending an ear to the varying career needs of different communities and nations.

“In Vietnam, we understand it is essential not just for students, but also their parents who are decision-makers. They’re sending their high-school graduates overseas to study – they need to know the quality.”

Eckerova says building these solid foundations turns graduates into future ambassadors. She says, “Alumni have gone back home, created a career and stayed engaged with the University.”

Recent alumna Lontya Kalililo is one such example. The Bachelor of Commerce student represented Australia and Torrens University at the One Young World Summit 2019 in London. And she’s already in the embryonic stage of starting an Australian-based international non-profit organisation that aims to prepare marginalised youth in Zambia to join the workplace.

Still dreaming of China: building international partnerships

Venturing into new markets is not the only tactic that’s helping Torrens University Australia to ride the highly volatile education market.

Despite tertiary sector fears that Chinese students are likely to leave huge budget holes, Torrens University continues to invest in that market – but not in the traditional sense.

Professor Emeritus Helmut Lueckenhausen is Pro Vice Chancellor Academic at Torrens University Australia. He says, typically, “Australia’s delivery of education into South-east Asia has rested on the attraction of its Englishness and of the lingua franca that people need to get on in the world today.”

But Torrens University has broken that mould.

Partnering with Sunlands Online Education Group in China, the University is offering online Master of Education and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees in Mandarin.

“When you deliver a course into another country, online, in their language, you really have to think, what is it we’re offering? It means they’ve associated a series of values with the courses we’re delivering, that they trust,” states Professor Lueckenhausen.

According to Mr Falvo, this is a unique offering – and it’s something that Torrens University has focussed on since its creation.

“It’s at the vanguard of how the world of education, particularly international education is going to change.”

“There’s a demographic that includes the student who doesn’t want to leave for migratory purposes. They want to get a career enhancer, and they don’t necessarily need to do that qualification in English. It’s just preferable for them to have a global context,” he elaborates.

And the links with China go deeper still, with the Suzhou (China) campus of the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School at Torrens University.

“This partnership is over 20 years old, and is one of the longest international joint ventures in China,” says Linda Brown.

“And our new partnership with Arizona State University and Universidad Europea de Madrid to build Shanghai’s first international university will be one of the newest international joint ventures in China,” she adds.

Building international partnerships of this kind has been pinned into the core of Torrens University’s internationalisation strategy. The university has rolled-out several other academic collaborations across the globe such as the one with the Ducere Global Business School, which spans Australia, Africa and the UK. It’s also fostered multiple partnerships in industry, with companies such as IBM – that transgress international borders.  Torrens University’s education partnership with Spain’s Real Madrid Graduate School – Universidad Europea delivers sports management and post graduate courses.

More than just global mobility: the internationalisation mindset

According to Professor Lueckenhausen, internationalisation is, “more about conceptual mobility than it is about physical movement.”

“Imagine any of the career sets that we are helping educate students to move into. How are they going to understand what they design, what businesses they create, what medical services they offer without having some understanding of what people are thinking at the receiving end of those business undertakings.”

This diversity of thinking is what university is all about agrees Ms Eckerova.

“The essence of a university is to share and debate ideas and concepts. The more countries we have represented, the more of these ideas will be debated within a classroom setting.”

In today’s globalised world, Professor Lueckenhausen believes that “we can’t just operate locally anymore.”

“Of course, we operate from our own experience, our own culture, and our own learnings. Everybody has roots in where they come from and the values they’ve learned. We accept that. But then you go beyond that.”

“You have to think about circumstances where others with different backgrounds are going to interact with what you do – directly or downstream. Imagine communicating with someone from another culture and language, and you’re trying connect, perhaps to sell them something or buy something from them,” he adds.

This notion of the global mindset is being embedded into the heart of the Torrens University curriculum. From the teaching and learning programs, right down to capstone projects. And importantly, this mindset requires an approach which recognises the needs and capacities of people at both ends of the transaction.

“Today, all of our programs are all designed to be place agnostic. You could study globally and across geographical boundaries – in and outside of Australia. Our On-Demand Short Courses offering to the public is one such example of this. They are flexible and relevant learning tools for Australians and people around the world to upskill and expand their knowledge base,” says Torrens University President Linda Brown.

“We want our students to be mobile. One of our assurances is that every graduate should be able to go and work wherever they want in the world.”

Mr Falvo describes the immersive aspect of doing internships or industry placements with global brands that like Accor, Marriott and Four Seasons, which form part of the undergraduate curriculum.

“If a student is doing a hospitality program or a hotel management program, they may have the opportunity to do an industry placement within a four or five-star hotel,” says Mr Falvo.

“If you graduate with that global mindset, you can work anywhere around the world, but you could also work anywhere, globally, from your own household online.”

Internationalisation drives global citizenship

Be Global is one of Torrens University’s key values. But it’s not just about traipsing around the world. Professor Lueckenhausen argues that at Torrens University it’s always been important to weight up how your teaching affects people further down the value chain.

“We want our students to be capable contributors within a parameter of ethical practice, into a range of different national and international contexts.”

Within this backdrop, one of the things the university is committed to is advancing the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). The upshot of this has been seeing students making a positive impact even before they graduate.

This dedicated pledge to improving lives and future generations, continues to make ripples in the pond across the University, and worldwide. The story of Philip Maw, the son of a farmer from Myanmar demonstrates the power of global citizenship. The Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School graduate-turned-lecturer is currently constructing an education and training centre in Myanmar to help disadvantaged youth.

Thinking through a global lens has also been carried into the University’s research – with nearly 50 percent of Torrens University research involving international collaborations. Health is just one area of focus with collaborations involving counterparts in Malaysia, Nepal and Africa.

International recognition through awards and rankings have also reinforced Torrens University’s place and impact globally. This includes the entry of Torrens University in CEO Magazine’s Top 20 online global MBA Rankings in 2020, and recognition of our students’ achievements at the renowned global design competition, Cumulus Green.

Where innovation and internationalisation meet

Mark Falvo says that he anticipates Torrens University is well placed to strengthen its presence as an international university and is well-positioned to keep producing world-class graduates despite the challenges and disruptions 2020 has presented.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australian universities like a tsunami, Torrens University was ready. Mr Falvo says it came down many years of experience in online learning.

“Our programs were always set up to be indistinguishable between the online experience and the face-to-face experience,” he asserts.

Success lies in the numbers. Mr Falvo says the University has a retention rate of over 95 per cent for international students.

“In an age where people can vote with their feet and decide to go and study somewhere else, to have these key metrics is very important.”

Next step – an important new global alliance

This global approach achieves all of this, but at its core one outcome remains longstanding and transformative. That this global mindset is ultimately about creating economic mobility for our students, our alumni and our communities.

“We created this new university to increase access to education, to put industry and students at the centre while ensuring every one of our students is an international citizen. To give students a choice,” says Torrens University Australia President Linda Brown.

In July, Torrens University Australia made an important announcement, that Strategic Education Inc will become its new owner. When finalised, this new alliance will create a global network of over 100,000 learners around the world.

Strategic Education is also a global company, based in USA, and with a strong foundation in innovation and economic mobility.  Recently Linda Brown was interviewed on The Alliance with Strategic Education Inc CEO Karl McDonnell. Watch here.

At the recent announcement, Linda Brown said “We are excited to be joining Strategic Education, Inc. – a US-based, publicly listed education provider dedicated to enabling economic mobility through education and at the forefront of technology-driven hybrid education. Torrens University Australia, Think Education and Media Design School will become part of a network that values the power of education and will allow us to maintain our innovative and global approach.”

“We look forward to continuing to innovate locally and globally, to meet the future needs of our students and partners.”

It’s this student centricity, and belief in innovating locally and globally, that will continue to drive Torrens University Australia forward through this global pandemic and ultimately into a brighter future of global citizenship and collaboration.

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