THE Asia-Pacific University Rankings 2019: not all plain sailing Down Under

Despite talk about Australia’s international education boom, the country’s sector has reason to be wary, as Phil Honeywood explains

February 20, 2019
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From afar, some highly regarded analysts see Australia as riding the crest of the proverbial wave in its internationalisation of education strategies and inbound student numbers. Their perceptions reflect the fact that overseas student enrolments are at record highs and that there is increasing evidence of market diversification. However, to gain greater insight into what lies ahead for higher education in Australia, it is important to factor in sectorspecific trends as well as political challenges emanating from both home and abroad.

Simon Marginson, an expatriate academic, grabbed the headlines midway through 2018 when he opined that Australia was likely to overtake the UK as the world’s second-largest study-destination country in the near term. But the key question this raises is to what extent such an outcome would be a result of the anti-overseas student policies in the UK under prime minister Theresa May, as opposed to anything necessarily positive coming out of Australia’s own efforts? In a similar vein, there is now evidence that Donald Trump’s “Fortress America” rhetoric is negatively affecting his nation’s student visa numbers. Trump’s invective is directed primarily towards students from Muslim-majority and Latin American nations. Will this necessarily translate into more enrolments from these countries in Australia’s higher education institutions?

By any measure, a study experience Down Under has a great deal to offer a young person seeking global citizenship attributes. The nation’s universities are highly ranked academically. Students are supported through a well-regarded national regulatory framework, which includes a comprehensive Tuition Protection Service to ensure that students receive the tuition that they have paid for. Good governance of the sector is further underpinned by the world’s only National Council for International Education, which brings together the six relevant portfolio federal ministers and 11 expert council members in regular meetings. Notwithstanding being one of the most urbanised countries in the world, Australia puts a strong emphasis on the provision of safe, affordable on-campus student accommodation. The large urban centres host rapidly growing migrant diaspora communities, which provide overseas students with a culturally diverse and inclusive experience. Compared with the UK and the US, the ability to work part-time while studying and, subsequently, to gain a post-study work visa also acts as a key draw.


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Regional rivals

With an average 10 per cent annual increase in overseas student numbers over the past four years, Australia has definitely been the beneficiary of all of the factors highlighted above. However, with recent data indicating that student visa applications are flatlining, it is important to compare the nation’s enrolment profile beyond just its top two competitor nations.

On a per capita basis, Canada and New Zealand have grown their global market shares most significantly. As course-related employability outcomes are now a clear driver of student behaviour, these two nations have enhanced their migration pathways and boosted their post-study work visa options. Curiously, the current New Zealand government had an election manifesto that promised to restrict international student numbers and work entitlements. But within 12 months of winning power, it announced that it would instead expand post-study work visas from two to three years and would provide vocational students access to this visa category. By contrast, the international education sector in Australia has seen skilled migration occupations increasingly restricted and no policy push to extend the post-study work period.

Within the Asia-Pacific region, some nations have focused strongly on competing with Australia to become overseas study hubs themselves. Whether it be Malaysia, Singapore, Japan or even China, each has put in place policy settings that actively support their universities to enhance their international student numbers. Each of these nations provides relatively cheaper tuition fees and living expenses compared with those charged in Australia. Particularly at the undergraduate level, they are therefore becoming attractive alternatives for price-sensitive student source countries such as India, Nepal and Pakistan.

This has led to some universities in Australia either now promoting their offshore partner course delivery programmes or emphasising their postgraduate offerings for study Down Under. While postgraduate courses might provide more revenue per student than an undergraduate equivalent, if this trend prevails, it could clearly lead to fewer overall higher education enrolments from overseas.

Postgraduate students are also highly motivated by scholarship opportunities that countries such as China now actively promote.


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Market diversification hurdles

To their credit, most of Australia’s universities have sought to actively diversify their student source countries. With the two major markets of China and India comprising almost 50 per cent of overseas enrolments, the search for new markets has been strongly promoted by government entities such as the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade). A further impetus has been geopolitical issues around national security and territorial ambitions marring the bilateral relationship with China.

Recent visa data that indicate that Brazil and Colombia are now well within the top 10 student source countries have, therefore, been welcomed by all stakeholders. However, it has taken some time for the higher education institutions to gain insight into the enrolment behaviour and motivations of Latin American students. 

It has been an unhappy revelation for some that the vast majority of students from Brazil and Colombia are enrolling in English-language and vocational polytechnic diploma courses with no intention of progressing to a degree programme. At least in the Australian market context, Latin American students are very price-sensitive and tend to return to their home country for a relatively less expensive undergraduate course. Again, the emphasis has therefore now shifted to promoting postgraduate or specialist higher education programmes to this nascent market.

Much time and institutional effort has also been expended in exploring new markets such as Africa and Indonesia. In the case of the African continent, the Department of Home Affairs has not been prepared, in most cases to date, to provide visa policies that are conducive to increased enrolments. Although Indonesia is Australia’s nearest neighbour, it still barely ranks within the top 10 student source countries, and the reasons behind this have been difficult to ascertain.

Domestic political constraints

Until recently, Australia seemed to have avoided the anti-international student narrative that has become a feature of UK and US political discourse. Unfortunately, a debate around big-city public infrastructure constraints has now dragged overseas student policy into the political fray. Over the past year, some politicians and elements of the media have suggested that overseas students are to blame for overcrowded trains, buses and highways.

The nation’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, even generated an exclusive front-page story in a Sydney tabloid with his suggestion that “visa students should be made to study in regional campuses”. This was followed up, in the first week of 2019, by a key trade union arguing in the media that “overseas students are undercutting local jobseekers”.

As the nation heads towards a federal election, most likely in May 2019, international education stakeholders are escalating their lobbying efforts to better educate the wider community about the many benefits that have accrued from the sector. Whether it be geopolitical relationships with a key student source country, competition from new study hub nations in the region or course-related employability options offered elsewhere, Australia’s international education sector has cause to be cautious at the start of a new year.

The nation’s universities are certainly not as optimistic as some offshore analysts when it comes to significantly enhancing market share over other study destination countries. 

Phil Honeywood is chief executive officer of the International Education Association of Australia.

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