Analysing Australia’s global higher ed export industry

The globalization of higher education and research is creating and attracting new players and new analysts. Credit ratings agencies have, for example, started to pay more attention to the fiscal health of universities, while fund managers are seeking to play a role in guiding the investment strategies of university endowments in the United States, and more recently Saudi Arabia.

On this broad theme, and further to our recent entry (‘New foreign student and export income geographies in the UK and Australia‘), the Reserve Bank of Australia released a June 2008 report titled ‘Australia’s Exports of Education Services‘. The Reserve Bank of Australia‘s:

main responsibility is monetary policy. Policy decisions are made by the Reserve Bank Board, with the objective of achieving low and stable inflation over the medium term. Other major roles are maintaining financial system stability and promoting the safety and efficiency of the payments system. The Bank is an active participant in financial markets, manages Australia’s foreign reserves, issues Australian currency notes and serves as banker to the Australian Government. The information provided by the Reserve Bank includes statistics – for example, on interest rates, exchange rates and money and credit growth – and a range of publications on its operations and research.

The scale and economic impact of this new industry is reflected in the Bank’s interest in the topic.

‘Australia’s Exports of Education Services‘ highlights key dimensions of the development of what is now one of Australia’s leading export industries such that it now generates $12.6 billion (2007 figures), and is Australia’s third largest export industry (see the two figures below from the report).

While the report is succinct, and can be downloaded for free here, I would like to flag three key themes from the perspective of the GlobalHigherEd analytical agenda.

First, reading through the report one cannot help but note the mercantilist approach that is infused in the analytical terms and data categories associated with the report, and Australian higher education ‘industry’ discussions more generally. From the dominant Australian perspective, global higher ed is unabashedly an export industry that needed to be created in a regulatory and ideological sense, and then subsequently, nurtured, reshaped over time, and more generally planned with strategic effect. Global higher ed is also situated within a broader array of educational services:

  • Higher Education
  • English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS)
  • Vocational Education and Training (VET)
  • Schools
  • Other Awards Sectors (e.g., “bridging courses and studies that do not lead to formal qualifications”)

Data on international student enrollments (1994-2007) using these categories is also available at the Australian Education International website (see the site too for clarification about source data and a key methodological change in 2001).

This strategic cum assertive/aggressive approach to the creation of ‘customers’ means that Australia will also ensure it has a capacity to monitor its primary competitors (especially New Zealand, the United States and the UK), and its emerging competitors (especially the group of countries that make up the European Higher Education Area, as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and China). Competition can occur through enhanced capacity to attract the mobile students who should have come to Australia, enhanced capacity to keep them at ‘home’ (via “import-substitution” policies and programs), or the external profile of weaknesses in the quality of Australia’s higher educational offerings, especially for fee-paying foreign students.

Second, the emergence of China and India as sources of mobile students is abundantly evident in the report (see Graph 5 and Table 4). Recall our 22 June entry, too, which presented data on Asian student numbers from the new Asian Development Bank (2008) report titled Education and Skills: Strategies for Accelerated Development in Asia and the Pacific. In short, Australia has strategically hooked into the highly uneven development wave evident in the ADB report, and shifted from ‘scholarship to dollarship’ (a phrase Katharyne Mitchell has used more generally) with respect to the country’s primary overseas student target. As the Bank’s report puts it:

Until the mid 1980s Australia’s involvement in providing education services to non-residents was directed by the Australian Government’s foreign aid program. Nearly all overseas students studying in Australia over this period were either fully or partly subsidised by the Australian Government, with the number of overseas students capped by an annual quota. Following reviews into Australia’s approach to the education of overseas students, including the 1984 Jackson Report, a new policy was released in 1985. This policy introduced a number of measures, such as allowing universities and other educational institutions to offer places to full fee-paying overseas students, which encouraged the development of Australia’s education exports sector. There were also changes in overseas student visa procedures aimed at helping educational institutions market their courses internationally. As a result of these changes, overseas student numbers increased significantly, and there has been a rise in the proportion of university funding sourced from fee-paying overseas students.

Third, the expansion of such a market, and the creation of significant export earnings, has created dependency upon full fee paying foreign students to bankroll a major component of the budgets of Australian universities (see Graph 4 above).

Thus, when between 15-20% of average annual revenue comes from “fee-paying foreign students”, especially the parents of Asian students, a condition of broad structural dependency exists, all ultimately shouldered upon household decision-making dynamics in places like Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Mumbai, Seoul and Singapore. And it should also be noted that the income streams being generated from these students are proportionally being reinvested into the enhancement of the faculty base; indeed, as the figure below from a new Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada report (Trends in higher education – Volume 3: Finance) demonstrates, Australia has seen a massive increase in student numbers (local + foreign) but relatively little faculty growth.

Is it any wonder then, that the Brisbane Communiqué Initiative, an initiative that we will profile in early August, was developed in 2006, largely in response to the Bologna Process?

The Brisbane Communiqué, and related initiatives in Australia, remind us that structural dependency upon foreign (Asian) students exists. Given this, Australia cannot help but be concerned about any initiative that might lead to the possible realignment of Pacific Asian (especially China), and South Asian (especially India) higher education systems to the west (aka Europe), versus the south (Australia), when it comes to the mechanisms that enable international student mobility.

Kris Olds

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6 thoughts on “Analysing Australia’s global higher ed export industry

  1. Thanks for this post … an interesting side effect of the fiscal approach to higher ed export in Australia is the impact on other labor market sectors in the country’s metropolises. International student visas (573) – there are four different levels requiring different amounts of money in the bank (India is Level 3, China is Level 4) – allow for twenty hours of work per week. But many international students/workers are doing much more.

    Whole industries (such as taxi driving in Melbourne) are increasingly manned by students on these visas. Some of this came to a head at the end of April with a stike by Melbourne taxi drivers (just as the Australian student movement is dead) after another (apparently racist) attack on one of the Punjabi drivers/students.

    For detailed blog discussion of these events (spanning into issues like the turnitin war on plaigarism) see here:

  2. Pingback: Update on ‘Will shifting currency exchange rate differentials (2005-2007) redirect flows of foreign students?’ « GlobalHigherEd

  3. Pingback: International education activity in Australia increases by 23 percent « GlobalHigherEd

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  5. Pingback: The economic contribution of international students in Australia (up to 2008) « GlobalHigherEd

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