Almost as iconic for Australia as the kangaroo or koala bear, the bayside Sydney Opera House is unsurprisingly the city’s most visited tourist attraction, proving particularly popular with Chinese travellers.
Few people could, I hazard, guess correctly the name of Sydney’s second-most popular destination among those from the People’s Republic of China.
The mighty Harbour Bridge? Perhaps Bondi Beach, the spiritual home of big wave surfing? Or the impressive Museum of Contemporary Art situated next to the green and gold ferries bringing tourists and commuters into the bustle of Circular Quay?
In fact, you’ll find it slightly outside the skyscraper-filled epicentre of Australia’s biggest metropolis at the University of Sydney. In an otherwise modern campus, the 19th-century sandstone quadrangle is a massive draw for Chinese visitors, who are already busy taking photos of its ivy-clad clock tower as I enter around 9.30am.
With its manicured lawns, gothic gargoyles and camera-wielding tourists, it could easily be a scene from the University of Cambridge or University of Oxford, where Sydney’s vice-chancellor Michael Spence spent several decades.
The most impressive aspect of the Antipodean quad is perhaps the circumstances of its creation. It was instigated in the 19th century when the university had only 35 students. When its main section was inaugurated in the 1860s, legend has it that the horse-drawn carriages of the city’s great and good were unable to reach the quad, defeated by slippery mud and vertiginous slopes to the bohemian borough of Redfern. Spare a thought for those charged with dragging the expensive Sydney sandstone up the Camperdown slopes, with the cost of raw materials no doubt infuriating colonial beancounters too.
This commitment to hanging the cost and creating impressive university estates has, it appears, continued right through to the current day.
With Australia having enjoyed huge prosperity thanks to a mining-led economic boom, and universities buoyed by a steep increase in student numbers (both domestic and international), it’s clear that a lot of money has been poured into university infrastructure – and on a scale at which even the most ambitious, facilities-focused UK universities would struggle to compete.
At Sydney, beyond its quaint quad, the campus is heaving with large shiny buildings, laboratories and libraries, with the A$385 million Charles Perkins Centre, a multidisciplinary lab focused on obesity-related illness, with its magnificently curving staircase justifiably earning comparisons with the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
A few minutes’ walk into the city, University of Technology Sydney has invested A$1.5 billion in its estate since 2008, with a striking Frank Gehry-designed business school at its heart.
Towards Bondi, the University of New South Wales has benefited massively from investment on its out-of-town campus overlooking Randwick racecourse, with a huge central concourse thronged with undergraduate stalls offering Indonesian cuisine, brownies and the chance to sign a petition demanding UNSW divest from fossil fuels (higher education has obviously gained enormously from the mineral-led boom, but the environmental backlash is increasingly visible).
While the scale and expense of Australian spending on estates is noteworthy, so too is how it’s been spent. All the universities I’ve visited so far have many small informal learning and meeting spaces dotted round campus, with corridors and lobbies populated with students tapping away on laptops, either alone or in small groups. Some are outside – the benefit of having a more temperate climate – but most are inside, bringing a palpable “student buzz” to walkways and thoroughfares.
Investment in IT infrastructure is also apparent. Up in Brisbane, the university wi-fi signal stretches well beyond Queensland University of Technology’s campus – which is hosting Times Higher Education's Young Universities Summit this week – into the nearby Botanic Gardens, allowing students (and yours truly) to work from a bench or picnic table amid the eucalyptus and palm trees stalked by hooked-billed ibises and scavenging Indian mynah birds.
Seeing this level of investment into new teaching and social spaces, as well as eye-catching new campus landmarks (QUT has an Olympic swimming pool tucked under its student centre), puts the UK’s much-heralded building boom into perspective.
It also underlines the quality of opposition that the UK, the US and Europe face when recruiting international students, whose high density in Australia (about 35 per cent in Sydney and Melbourne) underpins much of the higher education system here. There is no room for complacency. A visit to some top Australian universities hammers home this truth, obliterating the smug notion that our old imperial outpost is desperately playing catch-up on Europe.
The UK has a wonderful academic heritage, some excellent campuses and, post the Brexit vote, a much-weakened pound (everything here, save petrol, is heart-stoppingly expensive), which may pull in a few students, but the multiple benefits of studying in Australia are immediately obvious from a stroll round the country’s impressive campuses. The UK’s trump card – its connectedness to Europe and the world – will be much harder to play if a hard Brexit takes effect.
Vice-chancellors from Australia’s Group of Eight universities – the Aussie version of the Russell Group, if you like – are flying to India next week alongside prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to press home the government’s message that Indian students are welcome and post-study work opportunities will be forthcoming.
Australian universities have an excellent story to tell and it seems that more and more internationally mobile students are starting to listen.