Australia is facing a sharp decline in the growth of its education export industry as universities compete for fee-paying students in the developing countries, writes Geoff Maslen.
According to the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, more than 45,000 fee-paying foreign students are likely to enrol in 1995 - a 15 per cent rise from 1994 and an amazing 450 per cent jump over the past eight years.
But the yearly percentage increase in student numbers is falling sharply. From a 250 per cent rise between 1987 and 1988, annual growth dropped to 40 per cent in 1989/90, 28 per cent the following year and 15 per cent this past 12 months.
A spokesman for the Australian International Education Foundation said growth was tapering off as elsewhere. In the United States, growth last year slowed to 2 per cent.
But Australian universities have become increasingly reliant on fees from overseas students. Fees now represent a significant and expanding proportion of most university budgets. The sector is expected to earn a record Aus$350 million (Pounds 166 million) this year from selling courses to foreign students - a 50 per cent rise over the past three years alone.
Several universities now collect more than 10 per cent of operating revenue from overseas students while the biggest university, Monash generates in excess of Aus$40 million a year from fees.
After the federal government relaxed restrictions in 1986 on universities establishing fee-paying courses, foreign student enrolments rocketed from 1,019 the following year to nearly 17,000 in 1990 and up to 45,600 in 1995.
But the proportion of those admitted through Australia's aid programme has plummeted. Today, fee-paying students comprise more than 90 per cent of all overseas enrolments.
Universities have also established twinning arrangements with overseas institutions. Another 20,000 students are estimated to be undertaking the first year or two of their courses in home countries before coming to Australia to complete degrees.
Figures compiled by the department of employment, education and training show that almost three out of four overseas students are from Asia and the Middle East. Among fee-paying students, those from Hong Kong have replaced Malaysians as the single largest group, with Singaporeans, Indonesians and Chinese making up the rest of the top five.
Data over the past three years reveal a levelling out in fee-paying student numbers from the two biggest providers although growth continues to be strong from Singapore and Indonesia. There has also been a moderate increase in students from South Korea, Japan and Taiwan while the number from Thailand and India has doubled since 1993.