At a function a week or so ago which launched a new Soft Power and Public Diplomacy project at Macquarie University, I discovered that the international promotion and marketing function of Australia Education International was to be transferred, with little  fanfare, to Austrade.

Why is this significant? Or even interesting?

AEI had a busy year last year. Indian students crisis. Private international school scandals and closures. AEI's handling of these crises may not have been optimal. In a blog post last year, I was somewhat critical of its efforts at public diplomacy in a year which saw Australia's lucrative education industry lurch from one crisis to the next.

Yes, education is Australia's third largest export, bringing over $18 billion into the country last year, second only to our coal and iron ore exports.  And yes, AEI could have handled things better. Yet under AEI's marketing stewardship, Australia's international education enrolments have increased on average 11 per cent each year since 2002. According to experts in the University sector, including the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Development and External Relations, at Macquarie University, AEI has developed good relationships with education partners here and overseas. The shift of responsibility implies that AEI is being punished in some way for the collapse in Australia's reputation for international education.

Yet it would be overly simplistic to suggest that this collapse was only of AEI's making.  The systemic problems which revealed themselves during last year's imbroglios require more than a transfer of oversight from one bureaucracy to another. As Michael Wesley argued in his policy brief about the international student crisis, Australia's poisoned alumni:

Education institutions need to be subjected to much greater oversight of quality, affordability, value for money, and provision of student welfare. Measures to address the inequality of treatment and entitlements between domestic and international students should be addressed. Ombudsmen should be established and provided with real power to investigate and make recommendations. Stricter oversight of overseas student recruitment, working conditions, and foreign student integration measures is needed.

These are major organisational changes, and perhaps the Federal Government is in the process of pursuing them.  One wonders, though, whether Austrade is the most appropriate government agency to partner them in this process.  The risk to the reputation of the international education industry is that a shift to Austrade looks like window dressing, and worse, gives the impression to overseas education partners that Australia is only in it for the money.

Another symptom of Australia's poorly coordinated public diplomacy?

Photo by Flickr user fanz, used under a Creative Commons licence.