Australia’s education exports have continued to defy the doomsayers, with interest surging from would-be students – including from the crucial Chinese market.
Applications to study in Australia have rebounded after a flattening of demand earlier this year, with the number of student visa requests lodged in April – the latest month for which data are available – up 20 per cent on last year.
The number of visa requests from China climbed by 22 per cent, including a 14 per cent rise in applications for university study. Chinese interest in vocational education more than doubled.
The figures suggest that the appetite for international education has not plateaued despite two lukewarm months. The number of visa requests in February and March was in essence unchanged from last year, with Chinese applications down slightly in February.
Australian universities are terrified of a downturn in Chinese enrolments, which cross-subsidise other activities, particularly at the research-intensive Group of Eight institutions. There are fears that a cocktail of complaints – from protests about student safety to political tensions over the South China Sea and proposed foreign interference laws – could stifle student flows.
Education Department enrolment figures suggest that the industry is booming, with 7 per cent more international students starting studies between January and March compared with the same period last year. The number of commencing Chinese students was up 10 per cent overall and up by 15 per cent in higher education.
However, these data reflect student decisions made before tensions escalated. The Department of Home Affairs visa application statistics are a better lead indicator of where the industry is going, showing how Chinese students and their parents have reacted to criticisms of Australia in the Chinese media and safety warnings from China’s embassies.
Dean Forbes, a former Flinders University deputy vice-chancellor now working with the private higher education sector, said that enrolment growth had continued unabated over the past few years. “It’s steady progress,” he said. “No one’s baulking from the Chinese market.”
But while the visa figures suggest continuing growth, it appears to be uneven. Anecdotal reports suggest that Chinese enrolments have “fallen off a cliff” at some metropolitan institutions.
Meanwhile, tensions continue to cloud the bilateral relationship. In the latest development, Chinese-Australian billionaire Chau Chak Wing – a major university benefactor – was accused in Australia’s parliament of helping to bribe a high-ranking United Nations official.
The allegation drew protests in China, while Australian media reported demands that the University of Sydney return an A$15 million (£8.5 million) donation from Dr Chau to bankroll a museum bearing his name.
Other Chinese grievances, such as claims that Australian officials are stymieing the processing of Chinese students’ visas, appear unfounded. The “grant rate” for Chinese visas is at near-record levels, with about 97 per cent of applications proving successful.
Safety worries spurred by violent incidents in Canberra and Melbourne also appear not to be having an effect. School shootings in the US have not stemmed student flows there, with the latest Homeland Security Department data showing that Chinese student numbers have risen by 2 per cent.
Professor Forbes said that the current geopolitical tensions – particularly the power struggle between the US and China – were “unprecedented” in the era of mass international education, and the industry was bound to be affected.
But while concerns about Chinese influence in Australia were justified, they had been overstated. “There is always that opportunity to dramatise it a bit too much, and I think Australia is going that way.”