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Is the Australian education industry losing its trump card?

Kaili Ding

Fri Mar 09 2012

Australia may be losing its place in the global education industry. Photo by Sanja Gjenero

DESPITE higher education being one of Australia’s most lucrative exports, the nation could be losing its stronghold on the global education industry. But as Kaili Ding discovers, Australia isn’t going “down under” without a fight.

In December 2011, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s quarterly report showed a 15.52 percent drop in offshore student visa applications compared to the same period in 2010. Student visa applicants from China, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong were also shown to be  dwindling.

With international students making Australia a massive $16.3billion in export income in 2010-2011 alone, stats like this do not bode well for the nation.

A contributing factor to the decline could be the increasingly complex student visa application process, made less appealing  by steep application fees and difficult assessment levels.

But the Australian government is now attempting to address these issues. It says it is working  on streamlining the visa application process and  recently it announced it would be reducing the student visa assessment levels for 29 countries as well.

In the government’s first strategic review of the student visa program, the Knight Review,  greater incentives have been proposed to attract prospective international students  and they are now in the process of being implemented. One of these changes includes a new ‘Post Study Work Rights’ visa which will enable graduate students, beginning in 2013, to work in Australia for a number of years after graduation. These changes may help level the playing field for Australia.

Universities have also sprung into action. While Group of Eight spokeswoman Kerrie Thornton declined to comment on the decrease in international student enrollments,  she did say that the prestigious band of universities would be working closely with the Australian government to improve the visa application process.

For the University of Melbourne, however, declining enrollments do not seem to be a problem.  A university spokesman said in contrast to other Australian universities, the University of Melbourne has managed to maintain and enhance its attractiveness to international students through the quality of its degrees and educational experience.

“(The university)’s attraction to international students has continued to grow despite a significant national downturn, with the University making 40 more offers to that group through VTAC than last year,” he says.

There has also been talk that tertiary institutions are planning to ease entry requirements in a bid to make up for the shortfall in international student enrollments.But most universities Meld approached were tightlipped about the issue. The University of Sydney, Monash University and Open University all declined to comment while RMIT directed questions to the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) instead.

But according to IEAA spokesman Phillip Honeywood, no such plans are in the woodworks.

“The IEAA is not aware of any Australian universities contemplating changes in their current world class entry requirements,” he says.

The strong Aussie dollar has also been blamed for the softening of the international education market, as countries like the UK, United States, and Canada become more affordable study destinations. But Mr Honeywood seems to feel Australia can still hold its own in the industry.

“The UK’s recent decision to curtail post-study work rights for most international students has caused many students to look at alternative study destinations (and) Canada and the US have more stringent part time work regulations for international students compared to Australia,” he says.

“Other issues such as comparative cost of living, multicultural lifestyle, quality reputation of education institutions, overall safety and ‘liveability’ all impact upon the decision of which city and country to study in,” he adds.

International student Douglas Chew, a first year Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Melbourne, says he chose to study in Australia despite the strong Aussie dollar and high cost of living because it was a lot easier to get into compared to universities in his first country of choice, the United States.

“In the States there are a lot of procedures such as getting a council approval, writing a personal statement, mandatory exams and other standardised test to follow,” he says.

“Since the University of Melbourne provided a guarantee entry and the University of Melbourne is a good institution, I chose Australia instead.”

It seems that for now, at least, the numbers indicate the future of Australia’s education industry is looking bleak. But with the Australian government taking steps to tackle this problem by making swift changes to the visa application process and maintaining the ‘livability’ of its cities, the numbers still have a shot at improving next year. Conversely, things could spiral downhill if the strong Australian dollar still manages to eclipses these efforts.

All we can do now is wait.