There is compelling evidence that in the competitive business of attracting overseas students to study in its universities, Australia has "got it right". For example, Australia is the most preferred destination for students from Indonesia and Singapore.
The number of overseas students enrolled on Australian education courses has grown from 20,000 in 1988 to more than 80,000 in 1995. Although the most rapid rate of expansion took place in 1989 and 1990 from a relatively low base, the number of overseas students has increased each year and the rate of growth in 1995 compared to 1994 was 15.6 per cent higher than the 1994 rate compared to 1993.
The 1995 enrolments include some 47,000 students in Australian universities, an increase over 1994 of 16.8 per cent. This growth in the proportion of overseas students has taken place at most individual universities.
So what is it that Australia and its universities are getting right in this important component of the move to internationalise education?
Before 1995 universities marketed their services for overseas students against a background of general export facilitation by the Australian government and its agencies, and the specific support of IDP Education Australia.
IDP is a company owned and operated by the universities that has among its objectives the promotion of Australia as a study destination for overseas students. The company supports this promotional role with an application, enrolment, visa processing, research and market analysis capacity for all of the universities and more than 150 other member institutions through its network of 35 offices in 19 countries. It enrols some 30 per cent of overseas students from Australia's main source countries in Asia.
At the end of 1994 the government established the Australian International Education Foundation (AIEF), after a review and series of talks with education providers highlighted the need for a stronger government/industry partnership to promote and market Australian education and training services overseas.
The foundation is effectively a partnership between education and training providers and the government. Its funding is provided on a 2:1 basis - for each dollar institutions subscribe to the AIEF's offshore marketing and promotion Trust Fund, the government contributes two.
Against this background of government support through the foundation's generic promotion and private support through IDP's marketing and enrolment services, individual universities have targeted those countries that their analysis has shown to be the most relevant to their courses and culture, and have introduced or adopted a range of activities designed to increase their appeal to overseas students in those countries.
These activities have included the establishment of twinning arrangements under which overseas students (and indeed Australian students) can begin their studies in their home countries, obtain full credit from the Australian university and finish their study at the Australian campus of the twinned university.
There is a growing trend to set up offshore campuses while almost all Australian universities have taken steps (some at a faster rate than others) to internationalise their curricula in order to make the content, case studies and even assessment techniques more relevant to their overseas students. This represents a clear indication that the universities are listening to their customers.
All universities which are members of the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee have adopted the Code of Ethical Practice in the Provision of Full-fee Courses to Overseas Students by Australian Higher Education Institutions. The code and the accompanying guidelines stress the need for appropriate infrastructure, including an international unit to provide all necessary services for overseas students. Universities have responded to these requirements and all have founded international offices or their equivalent.
Above all, the government, through the AIEF, the universities themselves, and IDP have recognised that the single most important factor that appeals to the sophisticated overseas student market in which they participate is the quality of Australian universities. All the marketing activities that have been developed and pursued on behalf of the universities have stressed this quality across the university sector. Only once the fundamental quality attribute is established and accepted will the so-called comparative advantages - of proximity and similar time zones to the Asian marketplace, the favourable climate, the relatively safe and friendly environment and price - help sway decisions of intending students towards Australia.
The 80,000 students enrolled on Australian courses contributed a total of some Aus$1.9 billion (Pounds 950 million) to the economy in 1995. This amount comprises direct tuition costs of around Aus$0.9 billion and attendant "multiplier" costs for travel, living expenses, accommodation and family reunion visits - a growing activity as students' parents and family members travel to Australia to experience at first hand the culture and surroundings described to them by the students.
The encouragement to enrol overseas students is a key part of the move to make the international role of universities a mainstream rather than a peripheral activity. In that context the financial benefit, although obviously important, is not the only reason why universities have invested so heavily in the overseas student market.
Of at least equal importance are the exposure of Australian students to their overseas peers, which should make them more aware of international business and culture, make them more successful in the marketplace as a consequence and in turn make the businesses for which they work successful in increasingly competitive international markets.
The development of friendships and understanding between Australian and overseas students, and the growth of those friendships into a continuing and expanding network will lead to long-term business, diplomatic and government-to-government links and goodwill. This will undoubtedly develop as students achieve positions of importance and influence in their respective countries.
Given the fourfold increase since 1988, the fact that overseas students now amount to some 8 per cent of the total student population, that in one third of Australia's universities they exceed 10 per cent of the total student population, and that in two universities they exceed 15 per cent, the question has to be asked: "Has the total number and percentage peaked?" Both the anecdotal and, more importantly, the empirical evidence suggest not. Research and projections by the AIEF and others predict that the value of overseas students to the economy will rise to Aus$3 billion by the year 2000. IDP presented data in late 1995 which showed that, as a result of Australia's reputation for quality and its proximity to the rapidly expanding Asian Pacific economies, the demand for Australian education will grow faster in the next seven years than it has in the last seven.
The question seems to be one of supply. On that score one of the two universities with a current enrolment of over 15 per cent has a goal of 20 per cent by the year 2000, and the other is asking if there is anything inherently wrong with a 25 per cent figure.
The outlook for the growth of overseas student enrolment in Australian universities is bright, and it has to be acknowledged that having got it right to date, the sector is well placed to maintain the traffic on the road to an education in Australia.
Greg Gallaugher is associate director of the management, audit and human resources branch of IDP Australia.