Drop in foreign postgraduates threatens Australian finances, finds Geoff Maslen.
Australian universities are alarmed that figures from the federal Education Department show a fall in foreign postgraduate enrolments last year, which could mean the closure of courses, departments and entire institutions.
It is the first time a nationwide drop has occurred and, as overseas students comprise more than a third of all postgraduate enrolments, any decline could have a significant impact on finances.
The most popular postgraduate degree among foreign students is the masters by coursework. In information technology, overseas students make up 70 per cent of enrolments. But high unemployment in the IT industry and tight visa restrictions have led to a huge drop in the number of foreign students over the past five years. This has resulted in IT department closures and hundreds of academics losing their jobs.
Queensland's private Bond University shut its IT faculty last year and created an IT school in the business faculty. A major restructure at the University of Western Sydney resulted in its School of Computing and IT becoming part of a college of health and science that offered no IT.
The number of student enrolments in Australia's largest IT faculty, at Monash University, has fallen nearly 50 per cent since 2001 when more than 5,000 students were enrolled. The faculty is believed to be A$10 million (£4 million) over budget, and there are rumours that 300 staff may be made redundant.
Foreign postgraduates also represent a majority of enrolments in other fields. Overseas students make up 68 per cent of those enrolled on the engineering coursework masters, 55 per cent in management and commerce, and nearly half of those in the natural and physical sciences.
Research-led masters and doctoral degrees attract much smaller proportions of overseas students, but the numbers are still significant. Foreign fee-payers make up more than a quarter of postgraduates undertaking doctorates in management and commerce; and the picture is similar on engineering and architecture courses. About 20 per cent of education doctoral students are not Australians.
Many academics in these subjects could barely manage their research without the assistance of overseas students, who also play a key role in tutoring undergraduates.
While the postgraduates who complete research degrees usually return home or continue their studies elsewhere, coursework masters degrees attract the greatest number of foreigners who hope to remain in Australia.
Many universities rely on the fact that gaining access to permanent residency visas is a big attraction. Bob Birrell, director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash, estimates that at least half the postgraduates in accounting, engineering and IT apply for the visas after completing their courses.