Chinese recruitment slowdown ‘threatens Australian research’

Gravy train being shunted into siding as interest from Chinese mainland wanes

May 10, 2019
Source: Alamy

Signs of an impending downturn in international education have fuelled warnings that Australia risks undermining its research efforts and incurring a “multi-generational loss of reputation”.

The body representing Australia’s top research universities has called for the next government after the federal election on 18 May to support programmes that fund international student exchange, including a scholarship scheme axed in the April federal budget.

The Group of Eight also warned against over-dependence on international tuition-fee revenue to prop up a “distorted” funding model that forces universities to pay for research. The Go8 said its members had received just 35 per cent of their 2017 income from the federal government, down from 50 per cent in 1999.

Chief executive Vicki Thomson said universities were “ever more reliant” on overseas students, along with private sector grants and philanthropy, to bankroll their research and domestic teaching. “If this continues unabated, Australian research efforts will be overwhelmed by the scale of our international competitors in the decades to come,” she said.

The warnings come after Australia’s universities were told not to expect a perpetuation of the boom in Chinese enrolments that had helped to propel international education earnings to a record A$36.6 billion (£19.6 billion) in the 12 months to March. A senior immigration official told deputy vice-chancellors that visa demand from China was “flat”.

The number of visa applications from Chinese intending to study higher education has grown by just 4 per cent this financial year, compared with 9 per cent at the same stage of last year, according to the latest available statistics from the Department of Home Affairs.

This year’s modest increase has occurred exclusively among Chinese applying from within Australia – either current students extending their education or other types of visitors who have decided to study. Growth in this category has reached 17 per cent this year, while the number of Chinese applying from their home country has fallen by 2 per cent.

People applying within Australia have comprised 35 per cent of Chinese visa applicants so far this year, compared with 31 per cent over the same period last year and 28 per cent the year before. Experts cannot explain why the proportion of freshly arrived Chinese students is falling so rapidly.

Growth in primary visa applications to study higher education in Australia

Source country 2017-18 (%) 2018-19 (%)
China 8.7 3.5
China, applying from within China   6.2 −2.4
India 26.3 67.3
Nepal 17.9 16.6
All countries 10.8 17.7

Source: Australian Department of Home Affairs. Figures reflect growth over the first eight months of each financial year compared with the corresponding period of the previous financial year.

The Education Department’s enrolment figures paint an even more alarming picture, suggesting that the number of new Chinese higher education students has fallen by 14 per cent this calendar year, alongside sharp downturns from Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore.

However, these statistics appear to have been skewed by enrolment date anomalies in Victorian universities, with more reliable information expected when March figures become available.

Immigration statistics reflect burgeoning interest from India, with applications to study higher education up 67 per cent so far this year. Applications from Nepal have grown by 17 per cent, with Nepalis now displaying far more interest in vocational education.

Immigration officials have signalled a crackdown on visa fraud in the Himalayan country, with a May rule change requiring vocational education applicants to prove that they have adequate language skills and financial resources.

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