Foreign enrolments in Australia's education system have rocketed past half a million.
Freshly released international education data has made headlines across the country, with reports that an anticipated lull in student flows – triggered by tensions with China – has not eventuated.
However the real test lies in the months ahead, when events late last year – which risk dampening student flows from the crucial Chinese market – have worked their way through the enrolment cycle.
It takes half a year or more for would-be students to go through the process of selecting courses, obtaining places, securing visas and travelling overseas. Deterrents like the safety warning issued by Chinese authorities last December would be unlikely to affect student numbers in Australia before the latter half of this year.
The new statistics, published by the Department of Education and Training on 17 March, show that student numbers were 12 per cent higher in January and February than in the equivalent period of 2017. Australia was home to 542,000 foreign learners, up from 481,000 last year.
The federal government took the unusual step of trumpeting the February figures as proof of the buoyancy of the country’s third biggest export industry. March data generally gives a better picture of enrolment trends because the academic year often does not start until then.
“International education is going from strength to strength,” education minister Simon Birmingham said in a statement. “We’re on track to continue our record-breaking run of growth in international education.”
He highlighted the “broad diversity” of the source countries, in an apparent response to criticism that Australia is too reliant on revenue from Chinese students. While enrolments from the East Asian giant had increased by 18 per cent compared to the equivalent period of 2017, that rise was dwarfed by growth rates of 57 per cent from Nepal, 29 per cent from Colombia and 26 per cent from Brazil.
However, in raw numbers, China exhibited by far the greatest increase of about 26,000 extra enrolments compared to Nepal’s 11,000. The Chinese share of overseas students reached 32 per cent in the first two months of the year, up from 30.5 per cent in the same period of 2017.
Notwithstanding the strong growth, niggling signs point to possible hiccups in the pipeline of Chinese students. In February, 3 per cent fewer Chinese people lodged visas to study higher education in Australia than in the same month last year.
Recent growth is visas granted to Chinese nationals has come primarily from people applying from within Australia – not their home country – despite Chinese Ministry of Education figures showing that record numbers of students are heading abroad.
More than 608,000 Chinese people left the country to study last year, up 12 per cent on 2016. Almost 1.5 million Chinese students are currently enrolled in foreign higher education, the ministry says.