Australian National University
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Australia’s international student crisis is well and truly biting, and universities are attempting to reinvent themselves to appeal to domestic students.

From focusing on influencer-style experiences to pivoting to inclusive language, new strategies have emerged to help institutions become profitable and relevant in the post-pandemic world.

But do these fads actually help to foster true diversity and inclusion?

Wokeness wars

University handbooks released late last year have been criticised for their push for inclusive language.

Australian National University’s Gender Institute handbook encourages tutors to replace “mother” and “father” with “gestational” and “nongestational” parent, and use “parent-inclusive language” such as “chestfeeding” instead of “breastfeeding” and “human milk” rather than “mother’s milk”.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has blasted the handbook as “woke rubbish” and claimed it undermined public confidence in universities.

Similarly, the University of NSW has advised teaching staff not to call roll or attendance to avoid accidentally misgendering students using a different name than the one listed. Other guidelines urged teachers to use the term “humankind” instead of mankind.

One study, commissioned by telco companies which surveyed executives across 80% of Australian higher education and TAFE, found institutes are moving away from expensive lecture halls and prioritising the creation of “Instagram-worthy” experiences to “breathe life” into campuses.

Does any of this address the real issues?

Declarations of wokeness will do little to battle universities’ long-standing perception of being white and elitist, former NSW education minister and head of UTS’ Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion Verity Firth told Crikey.

“[An institution’s] job is to be available and accessible for as many people who are interested in receiving a university education,” she said.

“Unless universities really embrace the diversity agenda — which really is about equality of access to a good education experience — then we will always be seen as bastions of the elite.”

Addressing diversity ensures there are pathways to university that don’t just rely on an ATAR score, Firth said, along with making sure students can afford to survive while studying.

“It also means once you get to university, you have the sort of environment that is genuinely welcoming and doesn’t make particularly first-in-family students feel as if this is a world that they will never belong to and can never succeed at.”

Across Australia’s 41 universities in 2018, 94% of senior executives were white.

Let’s not forget: universities are businesses

Domestic students don’t bring in the same kind of money as international students, but appealing to them is more important than ever. Universities across Australia are recording higher levels of interest among prospective students and fee changes to humanities degrees haven’t impacted enrolments as much as expected.

Gwilym Croucher, senior lecturer at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, told Crikey that universities “are quite responsive to student demands”.

“They follow changing student preferences, they follow changing student expectations, they follow changing community and they follow changing government expectations.

“But they are big and complex institutions so it may not happen instantly.”

The focus on on-campus experiences, Croucher said, was largely driven by competition, especially from universities in the US and Canada which boast massive pools and world-class dining facilities.

Facilities also had to change to meet modern demands, he said. Libraries, for example, are no longer spaces to find books but study hubs for groups.

“There’s really a trend around the world of students acting as consumers.”