China still the number one source country

More than 230,000 international students were enrolled in Australian higher education institutions at the end of last year and, amazingly, more than 40% of them were from China.

The extent to which China dominates the nation’s foreign student market also shows up when compared with the second largest source country, Malaysia, whose higher education students comprise a mere 7% of the total enrolled in universities.

Such a heavy reliance on just one country poses dangers for universities whose budgets have been boosted by the fees that the Chinese and other students pay. When their numbers have fallen in the past, several universities faced serious financial problems.

Although students from India make up more than 10% of all international students in Australia’s various education sectors, they are mostly concentrated in the vocational education colleges. They do, however, comprise 13% of postgraduate coursework students, compared with 21% of Chinese.

International student enrolments are also concentrated within a small number of fields of study. For each of the top 10 nationalities, and for all nationalities combined, management and commerce is the most popular higher education field, followed by engineering and related technologies, IT, and 'society and culture'.

Almost one in four foreign university students take one or more STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and more than half the international students enrolled in postgraduate research are in STEM-related courses where again Chinese dominate.

Australia’s reliance on overseas students also shows up in their presence among these postgraduate STEM researchers: they comprise 29% of enrolments overall but more than half of those in engineering and related technologies, and just under half in IT. In mathematics-related subjects, 36% of postgraduate researchers are international students while 35% are in the natural and physical sciences.

Among the postgraduate STEM researchers, students from China are the largest cohort with 24% of enrolments. The next largest are from Iran (8.7%), Malaysia (8.0%) and India (5.6%).

The large number and the significant role international students have in Australian universities is in sharp contrast to the lack of enthusiasm by local students to undertake studies abroad. Only one in eight Australian students is likely to bother enrolling in a foreign university at some stage during their degree although a succession of governments have tried to offer inducements to persuade more to go overseas.

Before last September’s federal election, the then Opposition promised A$100 million (US$87 million) over five years to create a ‘New Colombo Plan’ that would offer 300 undergraduates the chance to study for one or two semesters in the Asian region each year.

The scheme would be the reverse of the original Colombo plan, in which 40,000 future leaders from Asia came to study in Australia through the 1950s to the 1980s.

Then Opposition leader and now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, said the scheme would be a "two-way street", with more Asian students coming to study in Australia as well as more Australians travelling to Asia.

Abbott committed A$100 million to the project, with a pilot programme to be in place this year and a full scheme to be operational by 2015. But facing a serious budget crisis and expanding foreign debt, the conservative government seems certain to curtail its plans until the economy improves.

University World News reported at the time that Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, believed the scheme to be a practical demonstration of Australia’s commitment to the Asian region.

Robinson said this was especially so because it would be a tripartite approach involving business and NGOs, governments, and universities, encouraging undergraduates not only to study in the Asia-Pacific region but also to undertake internships with businesses or NGOs in the host country.

“Australian universities have been trailblazers in integrating Australia into the Asia-Pacific region through the provision of higher education to international students; staff and student exchanges; research collaboration; and transnational education,” Robinson said.

“The New Colombo Plan will build on this track record by providing further encouragement and incentives for Australian students to incorporate a comprehensive Asia-Pacific study experience within their undergraduate degree programme.

“This will not only benefit the student but will demonstrate Australia’s commitment and help to cement Australia’s place within the fastest growing region in the world.”

Commenting on the low numbers of Australians studying in other countries, she said many more needed to go “if we are to make meaningful headway in improving Australia’s Asian capability".

The inclusion of an internship component in the programme added necessary depth to the scheme that would position students well with future employers on their return to Australia, Robinson said.