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Educators Say Australian Government Must Do More to Slow Drop in International Students

October 15, 2010

Australian educators expressed their frustrations with government officials Friday, saying they have not done enough to curb a decline in international students.

During the final day of the Australian International Education Conference here, panels continued to be dominated by discussions about the country's difficulties recruiting students from overseas—and what needs to be done about the problems.

In blunt language, Dennis Murray, executive director of the International Education Association of Australia, accused both the federal and state governments of failing to help resolve the issue.

Although the Council of Australian Governments committed to developing a strategy to assist international students in August, little has been done, Mr. Murray said. "We are just told, 'Wait and see,' whenever we try and find out things like Where is the money coming from? or Who will be responsible at the top?" Mr. Murray said at the meeting, which attracted about 1,300 people from 32 countries.

He added that the delay had made university leaders and others think the government "does not take this issue seriously and makes us feel that the strategy was a Band-Aid approach to what is seen as a serious crisis in higher education in Australia today with falling international-student numbers."

Colin Walters, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations, defended the government, telling the audience that the states and commonwealth were working closely to come up with solutions. He said they were considering ways to develop better cultural understanding between Australians and people from other countries, how to improve the quality of education in some parts of the education system, and efforts to bolster the security of non-Australian students. "We do see the importance of having international students in the country," he said.

According to the Australian government, enrollments by international students declined by 0.4 percent in the 12-month period starting August 2009. Those declines were driven by steep drops in English-language classes.

Planning for a Decline

While most colleges and universities have yet to experience a drop in students from abroad, they anticipate a decline in the years ahead. Some universities heavily dependent on international students are already making plans for budget cuts if enrollment numbers don't improve.

Monash University, for example, may have to reduce its budget next year by as much as $45-million and decrease its staff size by 300 people, reports The Age newspaper. According to the newspaper, a recent report said that education providers of all kinds, including vocational-training schools and English-language courses, could lose as many as 36,000 jobs if student numbers continue to drop.

Sue Blundell, executive director of English Australia, an association of schools that teach English, said that her members were just barely surviving in some cases.

"There is no buffer for us in a downturn, as we can only recruit foreign students who need to learn English, so there is no way we can fall back on domestic students at all to make up numbers," she said at the conference.

She said leaders in Canberra and Australia's state capitals need to move quickly to help her industry.

"In a student churn, we are vulnerable. We have to be nimble, and we need immediate information from the government," she said. "We can't wait for some paper months down the road with outdated figures."