Australia Bullish on Foreign Students

Number of enrolled international students rises 10 percent, and government officials say policy changes position the country well against competitors in Europe and North America.

March 25, 2015

Australian government figures show that enrollments of international students rose 10 percent last year, reversing a recent dive that cost universities and colleges more than one-third of their overseas students.

English-language colleges had their best year in 2013-14, with numbers swelling 27 percent. And while the growth has stabilized to a more manageable 9 percent this year, many students are proceeding to further study in vocational or higher education -- suggesting big surges ahead for these sectors.

Australian international education is still well short of the heady days of 2009, when overseas student numbers peaked at more than 630,000. But enrollments have returned to 2007 levels, totaling about 455,000 last year.

And the figures reflect only people on student visas. Language students also visit Australia on tourist and working-holiday visas.

The new figures follow last month’s revelation that international education revenue had already overtaken 2009 earnings. International students contributed 16.6 billion Australian dollars ($13.1 billion) to the Australian economy last year, up from its previous peak of 16.1 billion Australian dollars ($12.7 billion), leading Trade Minister Andrew Robb to highlight the economic importance of Australia’s fourth-largest export ­industry.

Writing in The Australian today, Robb renewed his prediction that the industry will grow exponentially if Australia fully exploits the potential of online education. “A spectacular opportunity lies before us,” Robb said. “The real test is working out ways to make the most of it.

“Sure, we can look to increase the number of students studying here. But the potential exists to be teaching up to 10 million students in the region within 10 years.”

Robb stressed the market potential of India, where the government has committed to train half a billion of its citizens by 2022. “We can expect from India a repeat of what we have seen from China. India is our top vocational education and training market, and the demand over the next decade will be phenomenal.”

Sue Blundell, executive director of English Australia, said language enrollments from India had also been strong, with many of students going on to study vocational or higher ­education.

She said postgraduate enrollments had surged, with Indian students lured by the opportunity to work after their studies.

New poststudy work rights particularly favored higher-degree graduates.

Blundell said the leg up from the new policy settings -- streamlined visa processing and work rights reform -- had been further boosted by changes in key competitor countries. Canada recently removed work rights for English language students, while Britain doused enrollments with a swath of reforms. These include a clampdown on work rights and new requirements for non-European students to obtain biometric visas within a month of arrival. “There are only about 200 post offices able to issue them,” Blundell said. “It’s going to make it harder and it’s going to add to the cost.”

Non-European student visa applicants will also be restricted to the IELTS test as proof of their language proficiency -- just a few years after Australia abolished similar language testing.

“Whatever our competitors do that is negative, we benefit from,” Blundell said. “Throw all those factors into a pot and give it a good stir, pop in a sprinkling of lower dollar, and you come up with a tasty appetizer.”

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