Last year, the international student sector contributed over $21 billion to the Australian economy, third only to iron ore and coal. Yet, when Rod Jones FAICD co-founded educational services provider, Navitas, in the early nineties, a high percentage of overseas students were failing, or dropping out of university before their second year.

“This had nothing to do with academic ability,” he says. “Being in a new country with a different language, a different culture and a different education system made it very difficult for them to succeed within the traditional first year environment.”

He was inspired to create a first year university level program that would smooth the transition to mainstream Australian universities. This included the provision of extra classes, more face-to-face teaching, back-up English support and a third semester in place of the usual long vacations. “It was a success from day one, increasing the number of students going through to second year programs to around 90 per cent,” he says.

At first, universities were cautious about inviting Navitas on to their campuses. “It was an entirely new business model – a private college that would make use of their facilities, their curriculum and, in many cases, their staff in order to deliver programs in a different way,” says Jones. “Edith Cowan University was the first to take the plunge and the venture proved so successful that we were able to roll out the program around the world. We now have 80,000 students and 34 campuses with university partners throughout Australia, North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.”

Navitas also provides a range of other programs at both vocational and degree levels in creative media, psychology, counselling, social work, nursing and English language. “We teach around 60,000 students in these programs each year,” says Jones.

An easy decision

When Emeritus Professor Tracey Horton AO FAICD was invited to apply for a seat on the Navitas board she had no hesitation in accepting. “I have a strong interest in education, largely because I believe education has played a transformative role in my own life and career,” she says. “I also held a leadership role at the University of Western Australia for eight years and really enjoyed working in the sector. So, when it was time for me to develop a portfolio of board positions, Navitas was one of the companies that I targeted.”

By the time she received the phone call, she had met Jones a few times and found him to be a very impressive person. “I admire his own passion for education, his drive and energy in building Navitas from one college to a global company and the fact that he has become an ambassador for the benefit of both local and international education,” she says. “I was also impressed by the capability and calibre of the other members of the board.”

After just over four years as a director, she was appointed chair at last November’s annual general meeting. “I had already developed a good understanding of the business but, as chairman, I’m viewing it through a different lens,” she says. “I have a lot more accountability and responsibility, and the job takes up a lot more of my time, but none of this feels taxing because I enjoy the role. One of the things I have always found most attractive about Navitas is the feeling that my work is helping to improve the lives of others.”

As chair and chief executive officer, Horton and Jones were able to build on an excellent working relationship. “The whole board is very open and collegial,” says Horton. “One of our greatest strengths is the ability to have very robust discussions in a very constructive manner so, by the time I became chairman, I already felt I knew Rod very well. But it’s inevitable that, as we spend more time together and act as sounding boards for each other, the relationship will continue to deepen.”

Navitas is the first listed company Horton has chaired, and the first with such an extensive international network. “Crossing national boundaries always adds a degree of complexity and we have businesses in 26 countries,” says Jones. “This raises a lot of issues for the board that wouldn’t be relevant in a national organisation.”

One challenge is retaining an accurate picture of how far-flung businesses are faring. Another is accommodating so many different approaches to doing business. “You can’t expect to be able to roll out exactly the same business model around the world without accounting for the cultural differences,” says Horton.

Recently, President Donald Trump’s international travel restrictions caused widespread concern. “Regulations relating to international students haven’t changed, but the introduction of travel bans from specific countries has created high levels of uncertainty,” says Jones.

“There’s no question that some students are stepping back from studying in the US, and not just those who live in countries where the travel ban applied. There are many young people, particularly those from Middle Eastern Muslim countries, who are now very worried about how they would be treated – whether they would be subject to racism or stigmatisation.”

An exciting future

Overall, the prospects for international education remain very bright. Around the world, there are currently about five million students studying outside their own country and this number is expected to rise to about eight million by 2025. This could include as many as a million young people studying in Australia or completing Australian university courses online.

The accepted model of a university education is also likely to change. “The norm used to be two or three jobs in a lifetime but the students coming through now are more likely to have as many as 15, and they may not all be in the same area,” says Jones. “Fast-moving technology has created a very fluid employment market where jobs are disappearing as others emerge. This is driving the development of short courses, which is a big change in the way we deliver education. These courses will allow people to dip in and out of education to keep their skills and training up-to-date and to keep pace with demand.”

Technology is also transforming delivery. While Jones believes there will always be a demand for personal interaction through tutorials and workshops, Navitas is investing considerable resources in exploring applications for new technologies.

“Our Navitas Ventures arm is investigating the potential impact of new technologies and how we can reposition ourselves to ensure we remain relevant into the future,” says Jones. “We have always been recognised for our commitment to quality and having very strong academic outcomes for our students so we are building on a strong foundation.

“We need to ensure that, as we continue to evolve, those key values remain intact. Future students will be moving in and out of education and they will be very clear about what they want. Providing what they need will require the continuous upskilling of our people as well as what we offer. So, in one way, these are scary times but they’re also very exciting.”

Horton is also optimistic about the future. “We’re seeing many, very positive developments in the education industry,” she says. “It’s up to us to make sure that we address the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.”