Top universities go for Chinese over Australian students

So eager are Australia’s top universities to boost foreign student numbers that many young Australians are being denied higher education in the institutions of their first choice.

While the Group of Eight leading universities continue to recruit increasing numbers of high fee-paying overseas students, largely from China, young Australians are being turned away and forced to study in the less prestigious institutions. Or miss out on a higher education.

A new analysis by researchers at the Australian Population Research Institute concludes that, as a result of the distortion occurring, there is a risk of “reputational damage” to the leading universities because of the poor quality of education that foreign students are receiving.

In their report, Australia’s Higher Education Overseas Student Industry Revisited, Dr Bob Birrell and Dr Katharine Betts refer to the business and commerce faculties at the Group of Eight universities, where Chinese students often constitute the majority.

“Such courses have had to be made less demanding so that the many Chinese with relatively limited English language skills can cope with their requirements,” Birrell and Betts say.

“Then there is the risk from geopolitical tensions that threaten Chinese enrolments. And finally, there is the risk of competition from other countries.”

The researchers say a further consequence of the rapid growth in overseas student numbers is the effect it is having on the access young Australians have to the top universities.

Although the Group of Eight (Go8) denies this, the researchers show that the group has effectively enforced a limit on domestic enrolments.

The share of overseas commencing students to all commencing students at Australia’s universities increased from almost 22% in 2012 to nearly 27% in 2016 and is even higher today.

“Such was our universities’ reliance on overseas students that most were prioritising the health of the overseas student industry over the educational needs of domestic students,” Birrell and Betts write.

They say the top universities’ focus is now primarily on basic research because they seek a place among the world’s leading 100 institutions in the global university rankings systems.

“The aim here is to attract foreign students, notably from China, who want a degree from a top-ranking university and are prepared to pay AU$40,000 (US$28,500) a year.”

Birrell and Betts argue that the willingness of Chinese parents to pay such large sums “is because their offspring are getting a credential from a university rated in the international top 100”.

‘Few Chinese students stay on’

“Qualifications from these universities appear to be highly regarded in the Chinese labour market. Relatively few of these Chinese students stay on in Australia after completing their studies,” they say.

This is in contrast to the many foreign students from nations such as India, where often the main goal of coming to study in Australia is to obtain a permanent residence visa.

“This enrolment pattern helps explain the Go8 universities’ focus on basic research,” say the researchers. “In order to maintain enrolments from China, they have to promote such research because it scores best on the metrics used by the international ratings systems.”

In contrast to the Go8, the researchers note that most of Australia’s other universities enrol overseas students “primarily located in the Indian subcontinent”.

Similarly, most of these students are attracted to Australian universities because of the access their enrolment gives them to the Australian labour market – and “thus to the potential of a permanent residence visa”.

The researchers argue that in the case of the Go8, overseas enrolments are vulnerable in three ways.

“First is the risk of reputational damage on account of the poor quality of the education overseas students are receiving,” Birrell and Betts argue. “Then there is the risk from geopolitical tensions that threaten Chinese enrolments. And finally, there is the risk of competition from other countries.”

Labour market access issues

The main issue for Australia’s other universities relates to current government changes in the rules on overseas-student access to the local labour market and to long-term employment contracts, say the researchers.

This means that the chances of foreign students obtaining a permanent residence visa are contracting and, as a result, so is the attraction of enrolling at a non-Go8 university.

“Australia’s universities repeatedly assure the Australian public that increased enrolments of overseas students are not damaging the prospects of domestic students aspiring to a university education,” they write.

“Concern that this enrolment scramble had gone too far (and was costing the Commonwealth government too much in funding) prompted the government in December 2017 to announce that it would reimpose enrolment caps in 2018.”

The universities have responded to the caps by insisting throughout 2018 that they amount to a reduction in opportunities for domestic students.

“But if expansion of overseas student enrolment was helping to create opportunities to increase domestic enrolments, you would expect that more domestic students would be gaining places in Go8 universities,” Birrell and Betts say.

Yet from 2012 to 2017, when there were no limits on the number of domestic students that any university could enrol, domestic student commencements at Go8 universities barely moved even though they could have accepted more.

“The stabilisation of domestic enrolments was not because the Go8 lacked the capacity to increase their student load. They did have the capacity, but all of it has been taken up by increased enrolments from overseas students.”

Local students not benefiting

“Clearly, the Go8 universities preferred to enrol overseas students. In effect, the benefits of the allegedly superior education that these universities offer went to overseas students rather than to local students.”

Birrell and Betts say this was not because overseas students had superior potential to take advantage of what the Go8 universities offer.

In fact, the opposite was the case: The minimal entry barriers to foreign student enrolment were simply because of their ability to pay the huge fees required.

The researchers argue that Australia’s universities, especially the Go8, are now caught in a vicious circle as their reliance on overseas student revenue deepens.

“This reliance means they cannot prioritise teaching which benefits the vocational needs of their domestic students, to expand enrolment opportunities for domestic students or to focus on research activities relevant to Australian industry or the wellbeing of Australian citizens.”