UWA looks to Asia’s international students

University of Western Australia vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater is looking north. Perth’s universities have a distinct educational ­advantage in attracting Asian students: they are closer to important Asian centres than Australia’s eastern cities and they are in the same time zone as a substantial part of Asia.

As a venerable, research-­intensive sandstone institution, UWA is perfectly positioned to make the most of this geographic advantage, and Freshwater says she wants to make sure the university overcomes international student setbacks, both ­recent and historic, and gets cracking in the international student market.

UWA’s start in the lucrative international student field wasn’t propitious, she says. “There was a cap on the number of inter­national students (under) a (university) senate decision made about 15 years ago,” she says. “At the time, in this state, across all five universities, international student numbers were very low.”

A more recent handicap was created by the incoming West Australian Labor government.

Elected last year, the Mc­Gowan government quickly ­implemented an election-promise policy to limit skilled ­migration into the state. The new policy ended the migration points ­advantage for international students wanting eventually to settle in WA under the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme.

It led to a marked slump in international students coming to the state, much consternation among university leaders and ­intense and sustained lobbying ­directed at the government.

“We commissioned a report through Bankwest to show the government the impact it was having,” Freshwater says. Eventually the policy was pretty much scrapped and there’s now a new graduate migration scheme that makes it easier for international students from WA universities to stay on once they have graduated — a big win for the higher education sector in the west.

Even so, the vice-chancellor points out, although there was a fall in the total number of international students coming to the state as a result of the immigration policy, the numbers of international students coming to UWA actually increased by 2 per cent across that time. “We’d already put quite a lot of work in, in terms of articulation agreements and work with agents. A suite of things we’d put in place came to fruition.”

From a small base five years ago, the international student ­cohort at UWA has reached 20 per cent of all students (about half from China), and Freshwater and her team have a strategy for continued growth, working with the government, some of the tourist organisations and Austrade, and lobbying for more direct flights from Asia to Perth, including from Shanghai and various ­Indian cities.

“We have to work extremely hard to make sure that people don’t fly over us and go to Melbourne or Sydney, which has happened in the past,” she says.

Originally an English academic specialising in the mental health field at the University of Leeds in Britain, Freshwater was appointed UWA vice-chancellor in January last year following stints as senior deputy vice-chancellor and registrar at the univer­sity. In England she was living an idyllic life in the spectacular Yorkshire Dales, and even raising sheep as a sideline, but she was commuting two hours each way to Leeds. So knowing Australia from scholarships and mental health conferences, she succumbed to the UWA offer and now lives within walking distance of the university, and soon her only child could well be joining her.

“I have a daughter who is actually marrying into a family that has family in Melbourne,” she says. “They’ve moved over here and I think they’re going to settle in Perth.”

Freshwater became an Australian citizen six or seven years ago while retaining her British citizenship. She likes living in Perth (to say the least), at least partly ­because she loves the outdoor life. “There is no better place to live. It is one of the most beautifully pristine ­environments.”

Since taking charge at UWA, she has been faced with a series of knotty problems, including the international student visa saga and, in August, a freedom of speech brawl that turned nasty. The university had to cancel a speech by American transgender sceptic Quentin Van Meter after protesters’ threats, even though Freshwater initially had said it could go ahead.

Van Meter had not been invited to speak by the university. He was scheduled to speak at an Australian Family Association event at a hired university venue, and in the end getting the right documentation from the AFA and ­providing sufficient security proved too difficult so the event was cancelled.

UWA has since been cogitating on the rights and responsibilities of the university regarding freedom of speech. “We have a freedom of expression working group developing a statement, rather like Oxford University have and they do in the UK and the US,” Freshwater explains. “There’s an opportunity to turn it into something that really unites the university.”

On another front entirely, she and senior members of the university are working on a 2030 vision strategy, scheduled to be launched at the end of this year. The vision will include digital, artificial intelligence and technological elements, but also, Freshwater says, and “importantly for us, I’m saying that we want to bring a new humanity to education”.

For the university graduate moving into work, she believes it will become critically important to be able to apply critical thinking, emotional intelligence, communication, ethical reasoning and skills of good judgment to the fields of data technology and artificial ­intelligence.

She would like to resuscitate the study of Socratic dialogue, to further students’ understanding from a deep, philosophical standpoint of how to apply data, how to interpret data, how it’s used to ­improve lives, and how it’s used to generate further improvements in research and the economy in ­future. All of these goals, she says, need to be understood through a “human lens”.

She would like to see students use an inquiry-based approach to understand how they can apply what they’re learning in a way that’s not only going to change their lives but also improve other lives as well. “We can’t ­develop world-class content in everything,” she says. “We can take world-class content and help people to understand it in context.”

This should be fundamental to everything that’s taught in universities, she says, whether it is on-campus, online or at a distance.

“The core business of this university is education and research and how it improves lives through innovation. We have to be sustainable, but we’re not driven by ­finance and economics. And we have to be accountable, in terms of the rankings and making sure that we are supporting the development of the nation in that regard, and that we’re at the right level of quality to recruit international staff as well as students. But it should not be a driving force of the strategy.”

Unlike many vice-chancellors, she says she is not driven by ranking ambitions — the desire to see UWA score ­highly in international university indexes. “You’ll see when the strategy comes out; there is no mention of top 50 by 2050 ­because that should not be driving the strategy.”