Australia’s ‘bifurcated’ international enrolments at risk: report

Regional threats and migration policy changes could ‘jeopardise student flows’, says study

November 20, 2018
Fork in the Road

Australia’s international higher education industry has split into two streams, both of which face threats to their sustainability, a new study argues.

The report, by the Australian Population Research Institute, says that the surge in overseas university enrolments has been fuelled by two groups. One is Chinese students who undertake high-cost courses at the prestigious Group of Eight universities with plans to build careers on credentials from institutions in the world top 100.

The other is students from elsewhere – particularly India and its neighbours – whose primary objective is to parlay cheaper qualifications from non-Go8 universities into long-term work rights and Australian residency.

Lead author Bob Birrell said that Chinese student flows could be disrupted by geopolitical tensions and competition from other international education destinations, including China itself.

A less acknowledged threat lay in the reputational damage that universities risked when they structured their courses “to accommodate the limited language skills” of the Chinese students who dominated some classes, particularly master’s programmes in accounting, engineering and information technology, he added.

Meanwhile, universities catering to Indian students were threatened by changes to Australia’s post-study work and residency rules, Dr Birrell said. These included a new requirement of two years’ prior experience for people seeking temporary work visas, and the federal government’s increasing determination to limit skilled migration.

This resolve was demonstrated most recently on 20 October, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed a cut to the country’s permanent migration intake from its current annual cap of 190,000.

Dr Birrell, former director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, said that he respected Australia’s achievement in attracting huge numbers of overseas students. But he said that universities were too intent on using income from international tuition fees to bankroll research and buttress their positions in global rankings.

He said that insufficient attention was being paid to the “downsides” of large-scale international education, including impacts on educational standards, local communities and Australia’s foreign policy.

“There must come a time when society and government start to question the priorities,” he said. “It is distorting the nature of higher education in Australia.”

Go8 executive director Vicki Thomson said that “government funding shortfalls” left universities with little choice. She said that Australian universities operated within “a distorted funding model” that relied on fee-paying international students to help cross-subsidise domestic teaching and research.

But she said that the focus on research performance did not mean that educational standards were neglected. “International students would not come to the Go8 if we did not offer them a quality education,” she said.

“They have the world to choose from. That they choose Australia and the Go8 is evidence that we offer a high-quality education in a research-intensive environment.”

Universities Australia said that the report misrepresented “one of the world’s most successful and appealing international education sectors”.

“Australian universities safeguard quality and standards not only because they are inherently important to all that we do, but also because high quality and standards are what attract international students,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson.

The International Education Association of Australia said that overseas enrolments were not fuelling migration. Chief executive Phil Honeywood cited a recent Treasury finding that just 16 per cent of foreign students who arrived after 2000 had become permanent residents by 2014.

Mr Honeywood also rejected Dr Birrell’s characterisation of a two-stream industry. “It’s very simplistic to say that the Go8 is Chinese, and the rest is Indian,” he said.

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Reader's comments (2)

Dear Sir/Mrs. I hope that my comment shall be directed to the Australian in charge for immigration & Unis as well. Most of the accepted students are Chinese & Indians , for ex. my son was accepted at the Australian University for an engineering degree , I signed the offer , we pay fees , finally the Visa was rejected reason was Political Situation , as a result my son lost 6 months . My question is , why the Australian Immigration and after the acceptance of the student by university take the decision maker by YES or NO so if it's related to immigration , from the beginning let this student have a pre-response if yes or no, or let a representatives from the Australian Government be in each University and to say his world from the beginning . With all my respect I'm a father of a student whom was rejected his student visa from 3 years approx. even i wasn't convinced by the response of immigration because we fulfilled all requirements. Thank You - Raymond
My experience, as a student, suggests there are no standards at some Australian universities. Everyone passes, despite many students being incapable of writing a sentence in English. The Business Council of Australia has reported this problem and the fact that many of the international students, whilst having the necessary skills for working in that area, do not have either the language skills or the relevant cultural knowledge to participate in that work environment. Since the migration route moved from business to education, so too did the number of international students enrolling in Education. The result: Students who cannot write a sentence or communicate appropriately, in English are obtaining B.Ed and teaching in Australian schools. One must question whether the deterioration of Education standards, in Australian schools, is linked to this "pass everyone" position. However, what it may suggest is Dr Birrell's comments have some relevance.