Australian universities report record foreign enrolments

Data released amid concern that tensions with China may lead to future downturn in recruitment

March 7, 2018
Glenelg Beach Pioneer Monument
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New arrivals: Adelaide's Glenelg Beach Pioneer Memorial commemorates four of Australia's colonisers

Record foreign enrolments confirm that Australia’s international education industry is yet to experience significant collateral damage from the country’s diplomatic tensions with China.

However future disturbances remain a possibility, with growth levelling out in some types of student visas.

Statistics released by the Department of Education and Training show that Australia attracted almost 800,000 overseas enrolments last year. Some 44 per cent or 350,000 were in higher education, with people from China comprising 38 per cent of them.

Individual overseas student numbers grew 13 per cent to 624,000, according to education minister Simon Birmingham, who seized on the figures as proof that foreigners had not been put off by recent safety warnings from Chinese authorities.

“International students are voting with their feet,” Mr Birmingham said in a statement. “Our reputation abroad is in no small part because of how students see Australia as a safe and friendly place to live and study.”

The Department of Education statistics capture students already in Australia. The safety warnings, seen as Chinese payback for Australian diplomatic snubs, happened too recently to affect these figures.

However the latest student visa figures, which were released last week by the Department of Home Affairs, give a better picture of what education providers can expect in the coming months. They show that future growth in Chinese higher education students is coming not from China but from people already in Australia.

Some sector watchers say that this is partly because Chinese applicants are being discouraged from seeking “packaged” visas that cover multiple educational sectors, allowing them to undertake English language training before switching to diploma or degree programmes. Instead, Chinese people are obtaining visas that cover single courses, forcing them to reapply onshore when they want to progress to higher study levels.

However, there is little evidence of this in the visa figures, with very few Chinese people obtaining stand-alone visas for English study.

Another explanation is that Chinese students are being targeted by colleges that poach from rival providers rather than recruiting from offshore – suggesting that the industry may in effect be recycling students.

New visas for English language study have also flatlined, with 2 per cent fewer awarded in the last five months of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016. The sector is seen as a canary in the coalmine for the overall international education industry, because students tend to improve their English before progressing to other types of study.

The Education Department figures also show declining growth in the English language sector. Enrolments grew at 3.4 per cent last year, down from 6.4 per cent in 2015.

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