Rocky Times for International Enrollment in Australia

Doing a bit of homework prior to a trip to Australia next week, I came across a decidedly gloomy prediction about the future of foreign student enrollment in that country. In a paper released last month, Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, makes “an educated guess” that the number of international students at all institutions will fall to 50-60 percent of peak levels, and by about one-third at Australian universities.

He is certainly not alone in his concerns. Many analysts have noted the impact on student numbers of two developments in particular. First came the violent attacks on Southeast Asian students in Melbourne and Sydney in 2009, which no doubt drove the 85 percent decline in Indian student enrollment from 2009 to 2010 reported in this University World News article. Then there are new visa restrictions targeted at dubious vocational schools, which recruited students more interested in finding a path to permanent migration than in, say, hairdressing. According to Australian Education International, a division of the Australian education department and the sponsor of my trip (with additional support coming from the University of New South Wales and the University of Melbourne), international student enrollment dropped by 1.8 percent last year, from 630,633 to 619,119. That change isn’t huge, but it represents the first decline since 2004. Marginson, noting that the more restrictive visa policies were implemented in the 2009-2010 period, believes drops in applications and new student visas portend much sharper enrollment declines by 2012-2013. The impact will vary significantly by sector, of course. This year, there have been 21 percent enrollment declines at both vocational colleges and English-language programs, and 3.6 percent growth in universities.

All this represents a potentially significant change for Australia, where it is often noted that international education is one of the country’s largest exports; by different accounts either third or fourth after industries such as coal, iron ore, and gold. Foreign student numbers have risen enormously in the past two decades–by 2,000 percent from 1986 to 2006. International students represent 28 percent of Australia’s higher ed enrollment of a little over a million (though I believe the international-student percentage includes 70,000 or so students studying offshore). The numbers differ by sector, but remain very high at leading research institutions; at the University of New South Wales, for example, there are 11,800 foreign students out of a total enrollment of 51,000.

University and government officials are making a concerted effort to tackle Australia’s international education woes, which come against a backdrop of heightened global competition and a strong Australian dollar that makes tuition more expensive for overseas students. Among other things, they are focusing more on quality assurance, on improving the experience of international students (including safety), and on streamlining the often-slow visa process for “lower risk cohorts” who are not suspected of abusing the system. Universities now set up booths at airports welcoming international students to the country.

Yet Marginson believes, as he argued in this earlier article (p. 20 of pdf) in International Higher Education, that it is really attitudes toward immigration that lie at the root of the problems facing international education in Australia. “It is sad to report that Australia has become less welcoming to international students,” he writes. Even if the political climate becomes more accepting of higher immigration, he suggests, turning around Australia’s market position will require numerous steps–not simply on the supply side, where visa reforms can help, but also on the demand side. There, he contends that Australia can’t recover from its slump without staking out a much stronger reputation for high-quality research. This will require paying more careful attention to recruiting the top PhD students who drive so much of any nation’s research activity. It will demand a focus on Southeast Asia, Australia’s key education market, and on ensuring that large numbers of talented Chinese students see Australia as an appealing destination. It will also mean spending significant sums on high-quality research–“probably the most cost effective way to lift both capacity and reputation in the global market,” Marginson writes–as well as building meaningful research and exchange partnerships with East Asian institutions.

Perhaps the drop in Australia’s international student numbers won’t be as bad as Marginson and some others have predicted. (The Australian just reported that Chinese student numbers rose this year.) Perhaps the measures policymakers are taking will struck the right balance between rooting out trade-school scams and facilitating legitimate international student enrollment–a new government review of student-visa policies is due to be released in July. Maybe stronger research will make Australia an even greater student magnet than it has been. I hope so. No doubt there are many other scenarios and analyses, both positive and negative, that I’ll hear about as I visit universities in Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne over the next few weeks. For now, it seems to me that overly restrictive policies toward foreign students are likely to be less of a problem for those students–who will likely find opportunities elsewhere–than for Australia itself.

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