Today’s report by Geoff Maslen for the University World News (9th December) – on whether the Australia’s A$11 billion a year education export market is facing a potentially catastrophic fall – must have Australian politicians and university managers shaking in their boots. The figures, it seems, are in something of a free-fall….and any spinning out of control is likely to leave a pretty large hole in the economy. As Maslen notes:
Foreign students now contribute $2.4 billion a year to university coffers. Yet the flow of new students arriving in Australia to undertake university courses has plummeted from double digit increases in the early 2000s to low single-digit increases.
In the first years to 2007, the number of overseas students undertaking university award courses on campuses in Australia jumped by more than 50% to hit 175,000 for the first time. But, over that period, annual enrolment growth fell successively from 17% to 12% to 8% and this year it is down to less than 4%.
Maslen goes on to suggest that a major reason contributing to the fall is the change in the visa processes tied to the skilled migration program. Large numbers of students come to Australia from India and China with the express purpose of gaining permanent residency once they have completed their studies. However, it seems that employers have been complaining about the poor levels of English competence amongst these students, making them unsuitable for much more than casual work. As a result, students who apply to stay on will face stricter tests of their English language competence following completion of their studies and as part of their application for permanent residence.
Maslen may well be right here. However, GlobalHigherEd can’t help but think that this isn’t the major reason, especially as it is referring to students applying to stay on once they have completed studies, rather than those who are planning to come in the first place and who may at this point feel a lot more confident about their ability to learn and use English.
What surely must also be an important factor in this mix is the growing levels of competitiveness from those who were once smaller players in the education export business – countries like France and Germany – for example, who are now regarded as potentially desirable destinations given a move toward English language instruction at the graduate level and with lower fees and moderate living costs and who are wooing Chinese students.
The USA, too, has had time to reflect on its own position, and is now reporting an increase in overseas student numbers following the post Sept 11 period when things were definitely heading in the wrong direction. US higher education institutions have invested in people and new processes in an attempt to turn around the decline in numbers and it seems that, at least for some institutions, this is paying off.
Finally, relative currency exchange trends are clearly not moving in Australia’s favour in comparison to the country’s competitors, especially the US.
What is clear is that, once in the game, there is absolutely no room for complacency – or the outcomes are potentially catastrophic, not only for the economy but for the institutions most directly affected.