AUSTRALIAN universities fear that the currency crisis in southeast Asia could hit the number of fee-paying students studying here.
Evidence from their recruiting officials in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Phillipines and Thailand indicates that the financial pounding of local currencies is already affecting student applications.
The recruiting arm of the Australian Vice Chancellors Committee, IDP Education Australia, warned of a decline in the rate of student visas issued and warned universities "not to be complacent".
IDP general manager Bill Street said his company was seeing "some reticence" from prospective students since the currency devaluations. Indonesian students were asking if they could defer paying initial fees until next year - presumably in the hope that the financial situation will have stabilised.
"I think there is a growing realisation, however, that the issue is not just a temporary devaluation but a more serious financial crisis that includes credit availability," Mr Street said.
He said that IDP study programmes for Asian government and education officials in Australia had come to "a juddering halt". A number of big education projects in Indonesia and Thailand had been put on hold.
A survey of foreign students, reported to an IDP conference in Melbourne last week, revealed that Australia had clear cost advantages over most of its rivals. But the survey also found that prospective Malaysians were worried about racism in Australia.
Mr Street said that while the cost of enrolling in Australian universities was now higher for many Asian students, "the one ray of light" was that the Thai and Indonesian currencies had fallen much further against the American dollar. This meant the cost of getting an education in the US was higher than for Australia.
"The other factor we have noticed is that some students are saying, `We had better enrol now and pay our fees in case things get worse'," he said.
Phil Honeywood, Victoria's tertiary education minister, is to lead a delegation of vice chancellors and technical college directors to Asia next month on a high-level recruiting drive. It will be the second time this year that the group has travelled across Asia promoting the advantages of students coming to Melbourne.
Mr Honeywood said he would be emphasising Melbourne's multicultural character and general safety as a way of countering Asian concerns about race hatred.
* Many British institutions rely heavily on Malaysian students but none contacted this week had experienced any difficulties so far.
Bradford University, which takes about 150 Malaysian students, said its numbers were up. The consensus was that financial problems were more likely to surface between Christmas and Easter as people ran out of money to live on.
The Universities Council on Overseas Student Affairs said there had so far been a "deafening silence" on the matter.