Foreign students to top half a million in eight years

Enrolments by foreign students in Australian universities, technical institutions, English language colleges and schools are expected to jump by 117,000 – a 30% increase – to a record 520,000 over the next eight years.

This sharply increased number of on-campus students would add close to A$20 billion (US$20.5 billion) to the national economy, according to a report released by the federal government on Wednesday.

Prepared by the government’s International Education Advisory Council, the report says that while historic rates of growth in overseas enrolments will slow as some institutions reach carrying capacity, foreign student numbers will continue to increase and their spending will directly benefit education institutions as well as retailers, accommodation providers and community enterprises.

“While this is considered a sustainable level of development, Australia should draw on its long, successful experience in international education to move up the value chain and to focus on providing a high quality education experience, as well as attracting more students to our Australian and offshore campuses,” the report says.

The council is chaired by a leading Australian businessman, Michael Chaney, with 11 members from the business and education communities, including the country's Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chub.

The report, titled Australia – Educating Globally: Advice from the International Education Advisory Council, says that to “ensure the sustainable development of a vibrant Australian international education and training sector” seven key issues have been identified, a strategic aim for each developed and a number of recommendations proposed to tackle them.

“These key issues are coordination; quality; a positive student experience; partnerships; ensuring integrity; Australia’s student visa programme; data analysis and research in international education; and competition, marketing and promotion.

To address the first and most urgent of these issues and oversee progress of a five-year strategy, the report calls for the establishment of a new Ministerial Coordinating Council on International Education.

The intention is for the council to be chaired by the tertiary education minister and to include representatives from business and industry, the international education sector and state and territory governments.

“The council would provide the leadership required for the sector to identify and best respond to new challenges. It could also consider new approaches to tackle the major long-term issues facing the sector, such as affordable accommodation and diversification,” the report says.

“With an appropriate focus on the recommendations proposed in this advice, in particular to ensure that Australia has excellent infrastructure to handle a student population of this size, we believe [the predicted increases in enrolments] are achievable and Australia will be able to deliver a high quality educational experience for international students.”

The report says there is additional potential to expand the internationalisation of the education sector through “outgoing student flows” and online and offshore provision.

Although the various education sectors have been through a strained period of falling onshore student numbers, the report says this has paved the way for “a new era of sustainable international education growth in Australia, boasting substantially improved quality assurance and student welfare arrangements”.

The government’s release of its Australia in the Asian Century white paper makes it essential for the nation to realise the potential that this new era offers.

But the report says Australia cannot be complacent about its relatively strong performance in international education to date. It refers to emerging competitive pressures driven by a high cost environment and the emergence of new players that require a renewed commitment to the sector and a comprehensive policy response.

Among the council's recommendations, which have been accepted by the government, are the following:
  • • An investigation of "seeding initiatives" into innovative online education delivery to overseas students.
  • • Education providers to establish processes that ensure international students maintain adequate English language proficiency throughout their studies to prepare graduates for work experience and employment opportunities.
  • • Increase excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics capability, and increase education quality by targeting and providing further incentives for top international academics and PhD students in these fields to study and teach in Australia.
  • • Ensure international students in each jurisdiction are treated equally to domestic students with respect to transport concessions and access to appropriate treatment in public hospitals while promoting “meaningful engagement” between international students, domestic students and communities (including through forums) across Australia to highlight best practices and innovative approaches in international student welfare.
  • • Promote opportunities for international students to gain work experience during and after their studies.
  • • Ensure that national research policy settings encourage international research engagement and collaboration between universities to build on and enhance Australia’s research capabilities. Also provide incentives for the development of partnerships between Australian and overseas institutions for exchange of students and academics, research collaborations and common teaching course and qualification development, including offering joint qualifications.