Foreign student numbers should be cut, say Australians

In the past 20 years, the number of overseas students enrolled in Australia’s schools, colleges and universities has jumped by more than 300,000 or an astonishing 560%.

Foreign students now total almost 360,000 – up from 53,000 in 1997.

But, with the inner suburbs of the capital cities crowded with foreign students and other international arrivals, Australians are becoming increasingly resentful.

A national survey, commissioned by the University of New South Wales (UNSW), unexpectedly revealed the growing public antagonism to the international visitors.

So much so that a majority of people now believe the government should call a halt to any increase in their numbers.

The survey of more than 1,500 people was taken early in February. The results showed that 54% of Australians thought foreign student numbers should not be increased.

Surprisingly, strongest support for not boosting their numbers was among Australia’s 18- to 34-year-olds, among whom nearly 62% said restrictions should be placed on foreign enrolments and nearly half of those holding a bachelor-level degree agreed.

This was despite the academics explaining to respondents that government policy required universities to enrol foreign students only if they did not take places away from Australians.

Universities warned

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor Merlin Crossley said universities needed to be mindful of the effects an increase in foreign student enrolments might be having on public attitudes.

“It's the same with a lot of changes in society. Too many 'big bangs' and things become dislocated. This information tells us that universities’ ‘measured growth’ is what we want,” Crossley said.

International students comprise up to 30% of undergraduates at some universities and as many as 70% of postgraduates, he said.

"Australian universities are the envy of the world. Their growth has been a huge success story. But Australia is a small country and Australians are anxious about becoming a little bit small in Asia."

Crossley compared the situation in Australia to Scotland or Catalonia in Spain where people were worried about preserving their culture during a period of globalisation.

“But if all our international students were American, then we would be worried about that,” he said.

Last year, the Group of Eight leading universities claimed that every three international students they enrolled contributed AU$1 million (US$717,000) to the Australian economy during the course of their degrees.

Applied to Australian universities and their overseas student numbers in total, that would imply contributions of nearly AU$117 billion every three to five years from selling higher education to foreigners.

Constantly updated

Other findings from the UNSW survey include that nearly three-quarters of Australians say a university education improves career prospects and nine out of 10 want tertiary education to be constantly updated to meet changing workforce needs.

Almost 80% of respondents want the next federal government to review the tertiary education system comprising vocational training colleges such as TAFEs (technical and further education colleges), and universities.

A majority of Australians do not support the government capping or limiting university places for Australian students. But while most want the government to help universities expand, most do not want the cost of running them to be met entirely by Australia’s taxpayers.

“At present universities are funded by a mixture of government support, domestic and international student fees, and government and industry research grants, and philanthropy. It seems that the idea of balancing taxes and user-pays fees via income contingent loans is here to stay,” Crossley said.

Some 91% of respondents agree that the mix of teaching and research conducted at universities improves the quality of education and leads to important health and technological advances.

Nearly half – 47% – want the government to intervene and set university entry levels for courses such as teaching. But 38% want universities to set their own limits while 15% don’t know.

Universities are recognised as conducting the majority of the nation’s research compared to private companies and institutions, and government institutions, although those aged over 65 years think private organisations do the most research work.