Why are fewer international students choosing to study in Australia?

By Mansoor Iqbal, Education Writer

After a decade of growth, enrolments of international students are beginning to slow in one of the world’s most popular international study destinations

In terms of higher education destinations, there are only a handful of countries in the world that can rival the draw of Australia. A heady combination of strong universities, led by the elite Group of Eight, and an eminently desirable lifestyle (not to mention institutional efforts to take advantage of these assets) has meant that, over the past decade, the nation has consistently been home to one of the world’s largest populations of international students.

The number of international students there has grown each year, not just in line with the global increase in numbers of students studying abroad, but beyond it, as demonstrated by the greater market share Australia now enjoys as compared to the turn of the century. Between 2002 and 2009, the population actually doubled.

As an established study abroad destination, it is almost inevitable– particularly in straitened times – that the nation’s universities, and the wider economy, have come to rely on the income generated by international students (famously education is the nation’s biggest export after coal and ore). It is estimated that around 18 percent of Australian universities’ income is generated by international students, increasing to nearly 30 percent at some particularly internationally focused universities.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne have found that every domestic student in the country is subsidized to the tune of A$1,200 by these fees, and increased research spending made in a bid to improve universities’ international profiles is also underpinned by international students’ fees. The total value of international students to the Australian economy in 2009, according to a report by Deloitte Access Economics, was A$16.5 billion, A$9.6 billion of which was generated by those in higher education. Over 180,000 jobs have also created a result of these international students. International students in higher education can take credit for 104,705 of these.

However, the climate seems to be changing. Official figures show that 2010 saw, for the first time in a decade, a drop in international student enrolments, and not just small one, but one of nearly 10 percent. Enrolments of international students in higher education actually rose slightly, by 1 percent, but this represents a massive slowdown – the figure was 11.8 percent in 2008 and a massive 25.3 percent in 2009 for example. Figures for the year to date are even more worrying. Total enrolments are down by 6.8 percent, and the figures for higher education are down by 0.9 percent as compared to this point last year.

The change is especially pronounced in students from certain countries. China, the top sending country, has sent 3.3 percent fewer students this year, which considering that the overall number of Chinese students studying abroad has increased massively is an extremely worrying statistic. The hit is even more pronounced when it comes to Indian students. Numbers this year are down by nearly 30 percent, which is pretty drastic even before we add it to a slump of 16.8 percent in 2010. Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam have also sent significantly fewer students this year.

So what’s going on, and does this represent a blip or a sea change in the shape of Australian higher education?  The Deloitte Access Economics report ascribes it to four factors, which generally echo those espoused by the wider commentariat.

The first of these factors is changes to student visa regulations, perhaps best exemplified by the more stringent financial demands now being made of international students. This can result in students from countries in the higher assessment levels (the Australian student visa system sees students allocated a level according to their country of origin and the level of the qualification they are pursuing) needing to hold A$100,000 in a bank account for six months – naturally not something all students or their families are capable of. Australia Education International China’s representative Iain Watt described such requirements as “foolish”. A review of student visas has recently been submitted to the Australian government by former minister Michael Knight but has not yet been made public.

The second factor is changes to the general skilled migration program, a subject which has attracted much attention in recent months. A new points-based system for the allocation of permanent residence visas was introduced at the beginning of July. This will favor offshore applications from those with skilled experience, as opposed to onshore applications from international students who have graduated from Australian universities. Unpublished statistics from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship made public in a report by Professor Bob Birrell of Monash University suggest that only 4,000 visas would go to the latter category, as opposed to 17,500 in 2007/08 and 20,000 a year earlier.

Professor Birrell, who advocates lowering the total number of migrants entering Australia to match this decline, has said that in order to offset the effect this will have – university as a path to migration is one of the key building blocks of Australia as a higher education destination– the value of Australian education in international students’ countries of origin must be emphasized. Certain voices, including those behind the Deloitte Access Economics report, have suggested that reducing these numbers could have a detrimental effect on the Australian economy, as new skilled jobs being created are not being filled. This would compound the predicted losses to the economy that would occur as a result of international students being put off by the difficulty of gaining residency after graduating.

The rise in the value of the Australian currency is the third factor. This has rendered study in Australia a more expensive prospect than it once was. While there are those who believe this is the single most important factor in the decline in student numbers, it has been dismissed by other commentators, who point out that such fluctuations have not had an effect in the past, and that study in Australia has never been a particularly cheap option.

The final factor is reputational damage, believed to be the main driver behind rapidly falling numbers of Indian students. This damage is the result of a small number of highly publicized attacks on Indian students in recent years in Australia. This has tarnished its reputation as a safe and tolerant destination, particularly for Indians. The effect of the attacks was exacerbated by a perceived lack of coherence in the Australian authorities’ handling of these attacks, and the consequent reaction in the Indian press, which was vehement in its criticism.

The damage done seems to be significant. In a survey of 3000 Indian students carried out by Higher Education Strategy Association ‘racism’ was the third most commonly used word to describe Australia (though ‘good’ was second, pipped to the post only by ‘kangaroo’). Efforts are being made to restore Australia’s reputation. During the inaugural meeting of the Australia-India Education Council, co-chaired by Australian Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Jobs Chris Evans and India’s Minister for Human Resource Development, Kapil Sibal, the subject of student safety was discussed. Mr Sibal commented that he happy with the steps being taken by the Australian government on this matter, describing its handling of the matter as “proactive”.

This final point seems to emphasize the fact that, while it is clear that this is a difficult time for Australia in terms of international students, an action is being taken to ensure that these problems do not remain unsolved. Falling numbers of international students could well be a problem for the nation, and one that is too important for the powers that be to neglect, particularly as universities move to a demand-driven system next year (caps on enrolment will be removed).  It remains to be seen how they are addressed, and it will certainly be interesting to see what approach is taken to ensure international students keep coming to Australia. But as long as its universities remain strong, its weather remains sunny and its arms remain open to international students, it certainly doesn’t seem like we’ll be writing Australia an international study destination off anytime soon.

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