Chinese interest in Australian degrees ‘trending up’

But former education counsellor warns that a reliable picture of Covid’s fallout will be a long time coming

June 15, 2022
Melbourne, Australia - May 12, 2019 Chinese lion figurine. Chinatown shop along Little Bourke Street in the Central Business District (CBD) that sells oriental souvenirs.
Source: iStock

More Chinese students are lodging inquiries with educational agents who represent institutions Down Under, a Sydney conference has heard, with Australia retaining a “positive” brand despite losing market share to northern hemisphere competitors.

Beijing-based trade commissioner Andrew Carter has offered an upbeat assessment of Australia’s biggest education market. “Agents are telling us that inquiries for Australia are trending up,” he told the Australia China Business Council education symposium. “We should start to see that flow through in applications next semester and the start of next year.”

Slightly over half of the 109,000 Chinese people with visas to study in Australia remain trapped in their homeland, prevented from leaving by border controls, a paucity of flights and fears of contracting coronavirus. When travel finally resumes they will have “more international options”, said Mr Carter, who oversees the promotion of Australian education in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Chinese applications to regional hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore are increasing, while the number of domestic university places is also expanding. Meanwhile, China’s slowing economy may make families “more price sensitive”, Mr Carter warned.

Nevertheless, demand in highly ranked institutions exceeds supply. “Only a small percentage [of applicants] make it through the high-pressure exam system into China’s top globally ranked universities, and an even smaller percentage into its most elite institutions,” he said.

The rigidity of China’s exam system has convinced many parents to consider international education, Mr Carter said. The push factors could strengthen as Chinese participation rates in tertiary education edged closer to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development norms.

“A highly competitive labour market in China is going to see more students wanting postgraduate qualifications,” he said. “The number of students sitting China’s domestic postgraduate admission exam [is] far outpacing admissions.”

But University of Technology Sydney (UTS) deputy vice-chancellor Iain Watt, who spent eight years as Canberra’s senior education representative in Beijing, warned that many universities would miss out on enrolment growth from China.

“Australia has lost a huge amount of ground to our key competitors over the last two or three years,” Mr Watt told the conference. “Prestigious universities in big cities…are likely to continue to do really well. But I suspect it’s going to be really hard going for universities outside the big cities, and for pathway providers. Many will lose money in 2022, 2023 and maybe 2024.”

He said education providers could not rely on an improving bilateral relationship following Labor’s victory in Australia’s federal election. “There’s a long way to go [before] we can be confident that in five or 10 years’ time we’ll have significant flows of students from China to Australia.”

Mr Watt urged caution in “interpreting data the way we used to”, saying neither visa applications nor student inquiries were reliable reflections of demand. “What’s happening during Covid will be very different to what happens once we get through it,” he said.

He said three-quarters of Chinese commencements with UTS this year had not possessed student visas. “Why would they? There’s no chance they’ll be travelling. Most of them are delaying applying for the visa until they need it.

“I don’t think we’re really going to understand…the fallout from what’s happened until about 2024, when we’ll work out whether the damage done by Covid and our previous government will be repairable in the longer term.”  

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