I read the latest report on declining international student numbers in The Australian this week. Institutions and groups are responding by saying that new government visa regulations "threaten to disrail the industry". The assumption here is that the industry is a given and must be protected, mainly because it is an income earner for institutions - and given declining government funding over time, the institutions need that income. All true, but the assumptions underpinning the existence of the industry need to be tested now. When decisions were being made about strategy to attract international students to Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I wonder if anyone asked what would happen if the government changed its regulations surrounding the entry of those students to Australia over time? I remember listening to a manager talk about his first trip overseas to recruit and marvelling at the opportunity to make easy money for the institution, and that we needed to exploit this quickly for as much as we could get. I remember saying to a Deputy Vice-Chancellor in a different institution in the late 1990s when projections of long term international student numbers were published, 'what if they are wrong?' - and being greeted with a look of such disbelief and a comment along the lines of that was unlikely to happen, and we'd deal with it if it eventuated.
As it turned out, the projections were wrong and institutions are now dealing with the implications of their faith in those numbers to the exclusion of other possible system changes. Like all projections, a linear extrapolation of one system variable based on today's circumstances, even when adjusted for what we know might change, are usually always doomed. The impact of what we know might change is insignificant when compared to the impact of what we don't know we don't know. And it's what we don't know that will always "derail industries".
Betting the farm on the assumption that the Australian government wouldn't change visa regulations in a way that would harm the international student industry was both short sighted and akin to burying your head in the sand. This decline wasn't an unknown, it wasn't a black swan; it was a real possibility that was ignored by institutional policy makers over the years because they needed the money, and they assumed the government wouldn't do anything to harm that income stream. While one can't really blame them given the difficult funding circumstances in which they were operating, it may be time to move on now.
So, what might be done? Instead of spending time and energy trying to get the government to change its mind, the decline in student numbers can be viewed as an opportunity to re-think the industry, and take a different approach that might be more robust and less dependent on government regulation. Rather than protecting turf, how might the industry be adapted and developed to respond to declining numbers? Rather than trying to maintain the status quo in the face of changing government regulations, how can policy makers work collaboratively to develop a new paradigm for international students in Australia? Most importantly, how can the industry be re-designed to be less dependent on growth into the future? None of the alternatives are simple or easy, so much so it seems that fighting the government to change their visa regulations is probably seen as an easier task. That's because fighting the government doesn't require you to change the way you think, or to challenge the assumptions that inform that thinking, no matter how tenuous that thinking is becoming. It's always easier to protect current investment rather than develop new options.
These comments are, of course, easy to make in hindsight. It's easy to say that institutions should have seen this coming, and that if there was no challenging of assumptions when the industry emerged, it's probably an outcome that was inevitable. We know that the value of using a strategic foresight approach to strategy development is only really clear in hindsight. And in the face of the need to earn money in the short term, spending time thinking about what might happen in the long term is usually viewed by institutions and strategy makers see it as a waste of time - because if you can't quantify an return on investment in thinking about the future, then it's not a valuable activity. But, one can only reflect on whether, if some time had been spent on asking 'what if' questions a decade or so ago, the outcome might have been different. I think it might have have been - at least in terms of degrees of possible impact.
If you make strategic decisions without doing some serious thinking about possible and plausible future operating environments and what might change over the long term, before you bet the farm on a strategy like continuing growth in international student numbers, then you'll end up looking like this when the future hits you in the face unawares. It's a look that's easily avoided if you integrate strategic foresight approaches into your strategy development and implementation. If you choose not to think seriously about the future in your strategy context today, then you do get the outcome you deserve.