AUSTRALIA: Collapse spreads around global village

News spreads fast in the global village created by the World Wide Web. And bad news always travels that much more quickly than any other kind - as the Australian government found to its likely cost this month when a Chinese-owned company called the Global Campus Management Group that ran a series of vocational education colleges in Melbourne and Sydney for foreign students suddenly shut its doors and went into voluntary liquidation.

No sooner had Australian newspapers reported the collapse than the Chinese media began covering the story - at length and often sensationally. To the government's alarm, and the consternation of local colleges heavily reliant on foreign student fees, the day following local reports of the group's collapse, some 20 major Chinese media had begun translating and reprinting Australian news stories regarding the group's collapse while online discussion started about the company and the Australian education sector.

Articles circulated across China's newspapers claiming that because this was the fifth collapse since July, more closures were likely. Over the following weekend, almost all key Chinese media, including the Xinhua newswire, the Beijing Morning Post and the English-language state publication China Daily, reported on the closures.

Many articles were incorrectly headlined with references to universities or technical institutes: "Four private universities closed...", "One of the biggest TAFE colleges closed" and other variations. Even the Chinese government international news channel, CCTV-4, wrongly claimed, "Four private universities in Melbourne and Sydney bankrupted".

During this outpouring some 700 articles could be found online although many were the same articles republished several times over in different publications. By the following week, the quantity of coverage had continued to grow and more than 15,000 online reports could be located using search engines.

Adding to Australia's growing concern, the Chinese Ministry of Education had issued a warning to students across China. In its fifth "Study Abroad Alert" for the year, the Ministry warned prospective overseas students against studying at any of the group's entities and called for all education agents to cease cooperation with it.

As the federal government agency, Australian Education International, noted, the Alert was a high-level warning to Chinese students, prospective students and education agents. It informed them of the situation and highlighted that those institutions pursuing a short-term 'education as an export' business model, seeking revenue primarily from international students, presented a risk to Chinese students - even if the institution was endorsed by local education authorities.

"The Study Abroad Alert was posted on the high profile MoE International Education Affairs Supervision and Management website," the AEI said in a statement. "The MoE and its announcements can have a significant influence on the Chinese public. Negative alerts are taken seriously and can have a negative and continuing impact on the reputation of a country's education system."

In a belated attempt to counter the negative publicity, the AEI's China office prepared an English and Chinese language press release which was printed under the Australian Embassy letterhead and distributed to 220 journalists from TV, print, online and radio media across mainland China. The press release was followed up by phone calls to selected media and sent to all 400 Chinese Ministry of Education approved education agents.

The English and Chinese language press releases along with a list of FAQs were uploaded to the Study in Australia China website, the Australian Embassy website, as well as the Shanghai and Guangzhou consulate websites.

Within two weeks of the story breaking, the AEI said its press release and FAQs has been heavily quoted in the press and the media reports were increasingly using the AEI materials rather than citing rumours or third-hand accounts.

Of course, by then the damage had been done although what effect the bad publicity will have on Australia's education export revenue is unknown. But, coupled with an even worse coverage by the media in India following a spate of attacks on Indian students - many of whom were also affected by the Global Campus collapse - it seems likely colleges and universities could face a fall-off in foreign enrolments that could even force some to also shut down.

AEI figures show that in the year to September, more than 585,000 full fee-paying international students were studying in Australian education institutions. This represented growth of 19% on 2008 while the 318,000 commencements over the same period represented a rise of 16%.

The importance of China and India to Australian revenues continues to be demonstrated: they are the largest source countries for enrolments and commencements with China accounting for 24% of all enrolments and 23.8% of commencements while India accounted for 19.3% and 18.8% respectively.

The vocational education and training sector ranked first in terms of enrolments and commencements, and was the fastest growing sector with an astonishing 37% increase in enrolments and a 30% growth in commencements. Asian countries represented 85% of all VET enrolments.

Higher education was in second place and recorded growth of 12.5% in enrolments and 16% in commencements, with Asian countries representing 83% of all students.

So why did the Global Campus group and a string of other colleges close? Some, if not all, of the collapses are believed to have been triggered by a sharp clampdown on student visas by Australia's Immigration Department following widespread media reporting of shonky colleges ripping off students and providing false documentation to enable them to gain permanent residency.

Some reports suggest the visa rejection rate suddenly jumped from 20% to 70%. Indeed, as a University World News reader, Arun Bhutani, writes in our U-Say section this week, the Indian market for Australian higher education is down to less than 20% in most Indian states, in part because of changes in the way visas are issued. Bhutani claims Immigration officials have changed their attitude from "why to reject" to "why to issue" a visa.

One commentator claimed the export education industry believes the increase in the visa rejection rate was deliberate, prompted by complaints from unions about the number of jobs being taken by foreign students.

"The manager of one big college told me this week that he is now refunding $600,000 (US$550,000) per week to students who had paid for their courses but now can't get visas. Last year, the visas were awarded automatically, but no longer," the commentator said in a column.

I have watched with bemusement the Australian Keystone Cop-like efforts at informing important offshore markets (and being informed) about student welfare, quality and so on. As, like international recruitment, the first Australian choice of activity is to travel, liaise with the perceived top people etc. But, meanwhile, those who are making study decisions are ignored How and why?

They, like the rest of the world, are online, but to all intents and purposes the Australian education industry has yet to discover the benefits of online international marketing and communication. I wonder why?

Australian industry still believes that Australian education is the flavour of the month and need only make travel plans, hand out brochures at seminar with promise of study, then go home, without analysing any of their activity.

Andrew Smith