Australia’s lucrative market for overseas students is at a crossroads. After years of expansion that helped establish education services as the country’s third-largest export, there are fears this growth could be reversed.
The well-publicised attacks on Indian students – culminating in the killing of graduate Nitin Garg in Melbourne in January – have sparked a startling collapse in the number of applications from the subcontinent for study visas.
Now experts are warning that tough new visa regulations, an unhelpful exchange rate and anti-immigration rhetoric during the run-up to last week’s federal election may be damaging the sector still further.
At least some of these factors are beginning to influence demand in Australia’s other major sources of overseas students from Asia – including China, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea.
Glenn Withers, chief executive officer at Universities Australia, said the “reputational” damage to higher education from the student attacks had been tackled with a concerted effort by institutions and the authorities.
This included the adoption by universities of a 10-point action plan last year to boost measures such as improving safe accommodation and information for overseas students.
There have also been high-profile police initiatives and evidence-based research on the issue, such as a recent paper by academics at Monash University, “The contribution of university accommodation to international student security”, published in the August issue of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.
However, the university sector has found it difficult to directly influence two variables – the Indian media’s reporting of the attacks and the involvement of vocational colleges.
Much of the violence has been against those studying at vocational education and training (VET) colleges, where students are frequently commuting in from poorer and potentially more violent neighbourhoods rather than living on campus.
Vocational college downturn
Dr Withers said that although university enrolments for overseas students were still up this year, VET institutions were already seeing a downturn – a trend that is likely to feed through to higher education, as many students take preparatory courses at VET colleges before moving on to degree programmes.
“We are expecting it to be much tougher next year – perhaps even a 20 per cent fall in the number of enrolments for universities,” Dr Withers said.
Official statistics tell a similar story. The latest figures for 2009-10 show that 28,055 student visas were granted for study at VET colleges, down from 69,156 the previous year – a drop of almost 60 per cent.
And the Indian market’s importance to this part of the sector is also starkly illustrated by the numbers. Offshore visa grants to Indian students for VET courses shrank from 31,451, which was almost half of the total number of VET visas, to just 7,014 over the same period.
Dr Withers said the key factor was the media reaction to the Indian student attacks, especially on the subcontinent, rather than the violence itself.
“A freewheeling and sensationalist media gave sustained attention to the attacks. In most cases arrests have followed and policing practices have been enhanced, but Indian student visa applications have fallen substantially,” he said.
Ruth Rentschler, professor in arts and entertainment management at Deakin University, who researched the media reaction to the attacks and its influence on students, said some Indians studying in Australia felt the coverage made them even more of a target.
“Some Indian participants in our interviews asserted that the media had negatively influenced the situation...and had made the Indian international student cohort into a target by placing so much emphasis on the attacks,” she said.
“The media were seen…as having played a role in bringing the issue to the attention of the general public, but were criticised for overplaying the events; in particular, the Indian media were cited as being inflammatory by the students we interviewed.”
However, Dr Withers said that although the attacks and media reaction had dealt a blow to applications, government policy, the high Australian dollar and the global financial crisis were now exacerbating the problem and affecting other important markets, including China.
He said the last Labor administration had, for instance, gone “too far” with one recent change to visa regulations – a 50 per cent increase in the funds that students must show to support their visa application.
“What they should have been doing is gradually increasing it over time rather than a dramatic change,” he said.
“There had been no change for eight years and now it has gone too much the other way. There has been a range of those sorts of changes that have made it very hard to get in.”
Another factor that may be affecting applications is the tighter control on other visas that many foreign students go on to claim in a bid to gain residency once their period of study has ended.
The general issue of immigration was brought even further to the fore in the run-up to the federal election on 21 August, which produced the narrowest result in years, and there are fears that demand from overseas students may fall further as a result of the tone adopted by politicians.
Migration a campaign issue
Labor’s leader, Julia Gillard, who succeeded Kevin Rudd as prime minister in June before the election was called, has rejected the notion of a “big Australia” espoused by her predecessor.
She also renamed the post of population minister when she took office to sustainable population minister.
Meanwhile, her opponent in the election, the Liberal-National coalition leader Tony Abbott, used the campaign to pledge to cut overseas migration by almost half, with student visas almost certain to be among the targets if they gain power.
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne and co-author of the book International Student Security (2010), said he feared that a cyclical community “backlash” against immigration was now playing out at a government level.
“Every so often – every decade to 15 years – there is a backlash from the community and government responds to it. It last happened in the mid-1990s,” he said.
“A lot of people are unhappy with the level of Asian migration and the government is responding.”
He also said the recent meddling with visa policy could allow the government to behave arbitrarily in terms of access to higher education for overseas students.
“There is the potential to discriminate against particular categories of students,” he warned.
Dr Withers said university leaders put themselves on the “front foot” during the election campaign to combat populist rhetoric from politicians and limit the potential damage to Australia’s reputation.
“Any embrace of these issues by respectable politicians does risk inflicting new damage on what is actually the most successfully multicultural country in the Western world,” he said.
“The trick is leadership, and if the politicians fall behind, then other community leaders are expected to step forward and delegitimise such base politics.”
New phase for sector predicted
However, Dr Withers accepted that internationalisation in Australian higher education was now entering a new phase, where quality postgraduates and greater research links would be sought rather than simple expansion in overseas student numbers.
He referred to this as the “third-wave philosophy” – following on from the post-war Colombo Plan, which led to thousands of Asian students being sponsored to study in Australia, and the more recent expansion, which has boosted university income.
“We want a balanced way forward. We went further than the UK and we are trying to pull back from that,” he said.
“Certainly the university sector was already looking to move on from undue commercialisation and look to a broader and deeper international engagement.
“This approach is now being accelerated, alongside renewed attention to a better student experience,” Dr Withers said.