The procession of Chinese university students into Australia has decelerated, signalling leaner times for the gravy train that has bankrolled research and construction in campuses Down Under.
New statistics from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs show that the number of people applying for higher education visas from China barely changed in the past financial year, rising by just 500, or 1 per cent.
This compares with surges of between 4,000 and 7,000 during each of the previous five years, with the number of Chinese applicants almost tripling over that period.
The shrinking visa application numbers coincide with representative group Universities Australia’s new public relations pitch to boost international student numbers, and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Sydney speech praising his country’s educational links with China – widely interpreted as a move to defuse bilateral tensions that have threatened the trade.
Chinese tuition fees are a critical cash stream for Australia’s universities, particularly its top-ranking Group of Eight institutions. Last year, international students provided between 29 per cent and 34 per cent of general revenue at Go8 universities in Sydney and Melbourne, and Chinese students comprised about 56 per cent of the group’s foreign enrolments.
Overseas student numbers have continued to mushroom this year, pushing the industry’s earnings to a record A$31.9 billion (£18.4 billion) in the 12 months to June, and Australian universities report ongoing growth from China.
However, the Home Affairs figures show that this growth has been in “onshore” applicants – Chinese already studying or holidaying in Australia, who seek to extend their stays by enrolling in new courses.
The number of higher education visa applications from onshore Chinese rose by 20 per cent last financial year to more than 21,000, after barely changing over the previous three years.
Australia’s administrative apparatus appears to be stretched by the increase in onshore student visa applications, suggesting that it may be getting harder for foreigners to remain in Australia and move from course to course.
Court action against immigration authorities’ rejections of student visa applications, undertaken within Australia, has doubled in the past year. More than 7,000 new cases were lodged with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in the 11 months to May, including about 900 from Chinese students.
Visa problems are among the grievances thought to have cooled Chinese appetite for Australian degrees. Geopolitical tensions are also believed to have dampened enrolments.
Sources say that authorities in China, irritated by public criticism from Australian leaders, have instructed educators and agents to give the country a wide berth. Educational meetings have been discouraged, and Chinese students have been warned to avoid Australia over supposed safety risks.
Greg McCarthy, BHP chair of Australian studies at Peking University, said that Mr Turnbull's speech was a “deliberate olive branch” and would have the desired effect in Beijing.
He said that Chinese authorities had their hands full with a US trade war, and would be keen to put dealings with Australia on a sound footing. “It’s very positive that we’re now getting back to a normal relationship.”