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Addressing the decline in the number of students from China

18 Jul 2019, by Amy Sarcevic

With its clean, liveable cities and a curriculum that caters to next generation industries, Australia is an attractive international study destination. However, a recent decline in students from China is beginning to spark concern among domestic universities and economists.

“Historically, we have become accustomed to 10 percent per annum cumulative growth in the number of Chinese students. But this is now levelling off, with the latest commencement figures indicating just a 1.5 percent year-on-year increase”, says Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia.

Overseas students contribute $34.5 billion every year to the Australian economy and students from China dominate the market, accounting for approximately one third of all international enrolments.

“Though volumes of students from China remain high, at approximately 200,000 per year, the growth has tapered off, and there is now mounting pressure to introduce new policy initiatives that will restore progress in this area”, Phil continues.

Ahead of the Australian Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit, Mr. Honeywood outlines why the decline may have occurred and shares his views on what we could be doing better.

More attractive visa options

Rising competition from our global peers is beginning to tilt the playfield in favour of nations with more accommodating visa structures. New Zealand is already profiting from its recent decision to elongate the post-study work right visa from two to three years. The UK is looking to reintroduce the two-year post-study work right visa for all international undergraduate students, after it was abolished six years ago. And, nations like Canada have been happily providing onshore migration for international students for the last few years. Meanwhile, Australia is not moving from its standard two-year post-study visa, albeit with some exceptions.

“Social license in the Australian international education sector has been problematic of late. The best we have done recently is introduce a three-year post-study work right visa for undergraduate students that study anywhere except Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast and Perth. However, with students from China tending to prefer more cosmopolitan areas to study and live, this incentive is not having much of an impact on this demographic”, says Mr. Honeywood.

“Going forward I’d like to see efforts to improve social license, coupled with better post-study visa incentives that pertain to all demographics, particularly China”.

Improve course related employment

Historically, Australia’s unique curriculum and pedagogy, coupled with next generation industry employment opportunities, has been an incentive for Chinese nationals to study overseas.

“Australia has always been looked upon as a good place to study business commerce. Our curriculum is focussed on critical thinking, innovation and project-based teamwork. This gives Chinese students a different pedagogy to what they are used to in their home country and provides the types of skills looked upon favourably by next generation industries”, says Mr. Honeywood.

But while domestic employment opportunities may be on the increase, Chinese students are facing barriers to entry in the Australian workforce once they have completed their studies.

“Aside from obvious factors like English language deficits or insufficient professional networks, one possible explanation is a perception among Australian employers that international students will not yield a sufficient return on investment, particularly with the post-study work visas capped at two years for most major cities.

“This is a perception that needs to change – whether it’s through extending the post-study visas or through educating employers on the benefits of Chinese graduates – for which there are many.

“With the majority of Chinese students opting to take up their post-study work visas, improving course-related employment is an imperative”, says Mr. Honeywood.

Improve barriers to entry

Australia is recognised as an attractive study destination for post graduates, for a number of reasons. However, when it comes to obtaining a visa, post graduates are often facing significant barriers to entry, particularly if the research that they want to undertake nudges up against a national security issue.

“In these cases, it can take up to two years for their post graduate study visas to be approved, as the application passes through multiple layers of bureaucracy”, says Mr. Honeywood.

“In the meantime, the applicant often gives up or starts weighing up other options – and finds that they are much more readily accepted by other nations.

“Curtailing this processing time is vital if we want to attract and retain large numbers of international post graduate students”.

With that said, there are many motivations for choosing Australia as an international study destination. Our curriculum is well-designed to meet the challenges of the future. We offer a clean, green environment, with some of world’s most liveable cities. Our time zones are similar to that of Asia. And we offer a relatively safe, welcoming and relaxed multi-cultural society.

The question is, will this be enough to maintain high rates of international students, in the face of our competitors who are doing more than we are?

Phil Honeywood is Chief Executive Officer of the International Education Association of Australia and is due to present at the Australian Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit – taking place 27-28 August 2019 in Melbourne.

Learn more and register your place.

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