Two studies have highlighted the lopsided state of international student recruitment in Australia and the dependence the country’s universities have developed on tuition fees from China.
Researchers from the University of Melbourne and Tsinghua University have assembled figures from diverse sources to estimate just how much cash Chinese students inject into Australian universities, and where the money goes.
Meanwhile, an analysis by Canberra’s Parliamentary Library has tracked foreign fee flows, following a marked acceleration in international recruitment from 2014. Earnings snowballed from A$4.3 billion (£2.4 billion) in 2013 to A$7.5 billion (£4.2 billion) four years later, increasing overseas students’ contribution to universities’ revenue from 16 to 23 per cent.
Co-author Henry Sherrell said almost two-thirds of the sector’s overall revenue growth between 2015 and 2017 had come from international education. “Clearly, the marginal dollar in additional revenue for a university depends more heavily on overseas students today than in the past,” he blogged.
“Any future slowdown of revenue growth from overseas students will be considerably more difficult to deal with than in the past.”
The Melbourne-Beijing study, published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, suggests how much of this money comes from Chinese students. The researchers synthesised information about enrolments, cash flows, fee discounts and Chinese disciplinary preferences to estimate earnings from Chinese students in 2010 and 2015.
It found that they had delivered the sector A$2.1 billion (£1.2 billion) in 2015 – A$750 million (£418 million) more than in 2010 – with 94 per cent of the increase going to the high-ranking Group of Eight universities. The Go8 derived 10 per cent of its revenue from Chinese students in 2015, up from 6 per cent in 2010.
More recent figures suggest this dependence has accelerated. According to reports from universities and the New South Wales auditor-general, the University of Sydney and UNSW Sydney each obtained more than 26 per cent of their income from Chinese students last year.
Given that Go8 members are the large research universities, the JHEPM paper says, “there are consequences for research performance and the health of the Australian higher education system as a whole”.
Gwilym Croucher, lead author and a senior lecturer at Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, stressed the need for more analyses of this type in Australia and elsewhere. He said that while the financial flows associated with cross-border research had been well studied, flows from foreign study were less understood.
Dr Croucher cautioned against equating international education with tourism. “While geopolitical and trade issues are important for tourism, the relationship between countries is much more important when people come here for education.
“They spend so much time here. They bring family over. They put roots down and form relationships."
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