FOR THE first time this year, fee-paying students from Singapore are expected to outnumber those from Malaysia in Australia's universities. Bad publicity in the Malaysian media last year over a racial attack on a Malaysian student in Melbourne appears to have affected enrolments.
Since Australia's former Labor government required foreign students to pay full fees ten years ago, students from Malaysia have been in the majority. But over the past five years there has been a 350 per cent increase in students coming from Singapore, compared with only a 55 per cent rise in enrolments from Malaysia. Last year, for the first time, Singapore students starting degree courses in Australia made up 19 per cent of all overseas students, compared with those from Malaysia making up 18 per cent.
According to Ian Dobson, a researcher at Monash University, publicity about the racial assault - a young Malaysian woman was taunted by two Australian males - probably contributed to the fall-off in numbers. In his report, Mr Dobson says that the majority of students from Malaysia are from the Chinese and Indian groups who face restrictions of access to higher education at home. Discrimination in favour of the native Malay population is one reason why Malaysia remains a prime source of overseas students and why almost half the Malaysian stu- dents in Australia speak Chinese.
Using unpublished data compiled by the federal Department of Education, Mr Dobson compared trends in overseas student enrolments between 1989 and 1996. He found that in the past five years, the number of foreign university students jumped from 5 per cent of all enrolments to 8 per cent. The growing tendency for Australian universities to set up offshore campuses was also revealed: more than one in ten of the overseas students are now doing preliminary studies, and, in some cases, the full degree, in their home countries.
But while the total number of fee-paying foreigners studying in Australia has increased by more than 150 per cent since 1989, the appeal of the country's universities could slip because of the debate over whether Australia is admitting too many Asian immigrants, and because of the government's education funding cuts.
Australia continues to gain two-thirds of its foreign enrolments from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. However, the biggest increase since 1989 has been in students from India: from just under 200 to almost 1,900 last year. Figures for new students from India reveal that a large market is opening up, with Australia set to join the US as an important study base. Japan could also begin providing more overseas students.
Mr Dobson concludes: "The 153 per cent increase in overseas student numbers since 1989 constitutes a healthy growth trend, as does the existence of 53,000 students paying full fees for tuition. But in 1996, as in 1989, the strength of overseas numbers was heavily dependent on four countries ... many universities are spreading their market wings to other countries such as India, but it will be a long time before enrolments from new sources can match those from the four major countries."