International student numbers surge to record high

Australia saw a surge in international student numbers, up 10% to 554,179 last year, according to Department of Education and Training figures – and a new student satisfaction survey shows a record nine out of 10 international tertiary students were satisfied or very satisfied with the education they have received.

Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham said: “With record student numbers and record student satisfaction, 2016 was a ‘gangbuster’ year for international education in Australia and the vital role it plays in national economic and social prosperity.”

The latest International Student Survey – of 65,696 tertiary students – found 89% of international tertiary students were satisfied or very satisfied with their overall experience in Australia and were continuing to sell the Australian education story when they returned home.

Birmingham said there were now more than half a million international students from nearly 200 countries studying in Australia.

He claimed the Turnbull government had reversed “damage” done by the previous Labor administration's “erratic changes to student visas that resulted in billions of dollars of damage to the international education sector”.

The 2016 International Student Survey results showed the top three reasons international students chose to study in Australia were:
  • • The reputation of Australian qualifications,
  • • The reputation of the Australian education system as a whole,
  • • Personal safety and security.
Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the record student numbers and satisfaction levels underscored the importance of maintaining government investment and policies to enhance and expand international education.

“Australia is absolutely a destination of choice for international students and that is a great success story for our country,” she said.

“International students invigorate our high-quality education system, our economy, our society, culture and our global relationships. The contribution of international students is critical as our economy continues to evolve to generate new knowledge-based industries and companies.”

According to the student survey, among higher education students the area of comparative advantage in terms of higher levels of satisfaction than in other countries – measured by the International Student Barometer, incorporating the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand – was in the experience on arrival (2% higher than the global average, at 91%), followed by living (1% higher than the global average, at 88%).

There has been a drive to improve conditions for international students in recent years, due in part to the negative impact of a spate of attacks on Indian students in 2009.

Australia has had an International Students Strategy in place since 2010. The 2010-14 version included initiatives such as improving student well-being through the provision of a student personal safety guide, student safety plans, stronger health cover arrangements, a national community engagement strategy and an international student consultative committee.

It also aimed to provide stronger complaints handling and dispute resolution; and better information via a Study in Australia portal, information on government services, fees and concessions, and international student surveys.

Since an international student roundtable in 2009 there has been a push for better pre-arrival information about facilities, teaching quality and better access to basic services.

Governments have also recognised the need for better mechanisms for consultation with international students. There have also been efforts to improve the quality of education agent services.

A key area has been the improvement of student safety. Governments have taken steps to improve this, including increasing police surveillance of known danger spots and providing targeted safety information.

A new National Strategy for International Education 2025 offering a 10-year blueprint for expansion of the sector was unveiled in May last year.

Sustainable growth

Minister Birmingham said the Turnbull government was committed to supporting the sustainable growth of the international education sector and protecting Australia’s strong reputation by announcing practical measures in the National Strategy for International Education 2025.

“Australia’s international education system continues to be at the forefront of our transition from an economy built on the success of the mining and construction boom to an economy based on knowledge, services and innovation,” Minister Birmingham said.

In 2016 preliminary export data showed international education exports hit a record AU$21.8 billion (US$16.8 billion), making it Australia’s third-largest export after iron ore and coal.

Birmingham said the benefits of international education flow through to sectors such as retail and tourism, supporting over 130,000 full-time jobs across the country's major cities.

"Benefits will also be long lasting as international students create a massive diaspora of Australian friends and advocates across the world, while leaving Australian students better equipped to deal with a world increasingly reliant upon global engagement.”

He said indicators showed that the country will achieve continued growth in international student numbers in 2017.

Geopolitical factors

In what appeared to be a veiled reference to the Brexit decision in the UK and the uncertainty caused by President Donald Trump’s immigration policies in the US, the minister said “various geopolitical factors create new possibilities for Australia to maximise our share of the growing number of students from all over the world who are travelling to study. I will be canvassing how best we can maximise these opportunities with our International Education Council."

A record 554,179 students studied in Australia last year with enrolments in higher education and vocational education and training growing 13% and 12% respectively in comparison with 2015. The average annual rate of growth in international education has been 10.5% since the Coalition took office in 2013, according to Birmingham.