While a number of headlines about falling international student numbers in Australia have emerged over the past two years, it has been noticeable that the higher education sector remained relatively resilient. Donna Cook at Australian Catholic University believes this is due to the enduring quality of Australia’s education and the country’s broad appeal. “Higher education courses in Australia provide students with access to world class education that is learner-centred. Australia is a multicultural society, so students are able to gain an international education, developing an understanding of and contacts with people from many different cultures.”
Nonetheless, the sector has faced some tough challenges. The strong Australian dollar is only part of the story, according to Dr Glenn Withers, CEO of Universities Australia, the peak body that represents the country’s 39 universities. “The recent changes to visa and migration policy, increased competition from countries such as the USA and the UK, along with the unfortunate reputational damage the sector suffered in 2010 have all contributed to a significant downturn in student commencements.” Stricter student visa regulations were introduced at the beginning of June 2010, while negative publicity relating to attacks on Indian students also impacted on a key market.
Recently released figures from Australian government agency, DEEWR, showed year-to-date enrolments in September 2011 for international students in higher education rose by 0.8 per cent, which remains largely consistent with 2009 levels. To put the figures in context, the Elicos and VET sectors were both showing a 17 per cent decline. However, the number of commencements dropped 3.1 per cent, meaning the number of new students in the system declined. Withers cautions that the hit taken by the other sectors has not yet been felt by universities. “The downturn has been worse for the other international education sectors, for instance English language providers, and given that is a source of around 60 per cent of our international students this will have a flow on effect to universities in late 2011-2012.”
New Immigration Department data on student visa applications does show encouraging signs of recovery from India. Third quarter figures indicated an increase of 4,000 applications, with a 150 per cent increase in offshore applications. Swinburne University has already reported a tentative increase in undergraduate and postgraduate student numbers from India. However, Alison Owens of the International Research Centre at Central Queensland University, says that universities have successfully diversified during the last few years, insulating themselves against large declines from a single market. “New groups are emerging, for example from South America and eastern Europe. That’s precisely the kind of trend we’re looking for. The international education industry has matured.” Cook concurs with this view, “The trend we find most obvious is the increase in greater student diversity.”
Universities were also major beneficiaries of the recent Knight Review into the student visa programme. Important facets of the review, which has been accepted by the government, are that all applicants to a university will be treated as the lowest-risk Assessment Level 1, regardless of nationality. The level of maintenance funds that students need to deposit in a government-sanctioned bank account has been substantially reduced as much as AUS$36,000 (US$37,260) for students from China and India. Furthermore, all graduates of an Australian Bachelor degree will receive two years post-study work rights, rising to four years for a PhD graduate (see box).
Regardless of the review, Australian universities are keen demonstrate that they have been striving to improve the attractiveness of the country as a higher education destination. Universities Australia has embarked upon a benchmarking survey to monitor the student experience. The first results of the International Student Barometer were released in 2011 and the survey of 36,308 international students showed that 86 per cent were satisfied. Withers welcoms the results, but adds “there is no room for complacency and still room for ongoing improvement”. The group’s members are implementing an action plan to ensure that student expectations in areas such as affordable accommodation, safety and cross-cultural communication are met.
Universities have also been innovating in course offerings, as Cook reports. “We are absolutely actively seeking to recruit more international students, primarily through developing courses that suit the needs of students. We have just designed a course English for the Workplace that aims to make students job ready and enhance their employability for jobs both in Australia and in their home countries,” she explains.
Response to the Knight Review
The response from the university sector to the Knight Review has been largely positive. Professor Paul Greenfield, Chair of the Group of Eight coalition of leading universities, says, “The review has recognised that Australia’s universities are high quality, low risk providers, and changes to the risk framework send a clear message that Australian education providers are responsible for ensuring they uphold quality.” For Universities Australia CEO, Dr Glenn Withers, “The Knight Review has been a key initiative in addressing many of the issues which have produced the current decline in international student enrolments.” Withers is particulary optimistic about changes to work rights and visa applications. “The extension of graduate work visas beyond 18 months and the streamlining of visa processing arrangements together realise the government’s intent to put quality education at the forefront of the visa system. Overseas students are very clear that a work period in Australia pays off handsomely in employment when they return home...We anticipate international student enrolments will increase from mid-2012 as the flow on effects from the Knight Review are felt,” Withers adds.