In an article from the Australian Financial Review today, it was suggested that Chinese students are no longer flocking to Australia to study at our universities. This is a worry – but we also need to know who will fill their spaces. Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University has recently been in India trying to look at new ‘markets’.
Professor Duncan Maskell was the latest of Australia’s higher education chiefs to make the trek to the sub continent in search of new markets. Unusually among VCs he stopped at Jakarta on the way back to tie up some new connections for the university.
If you ask Professor Maskell what he hopes to get from such markets he bristles: “What do you mean by markets? Supermarkets?”
He is not alone in university chiefs resisting the implication that Australian universities are in the business of student markets.
Privately, universities admit the flow of students from China is so large it is effectively commoditised.
Melbourne University makes 16 per cent of its operating income from Chinese students, that’s $410 million. There are 153,000 Chinese higher-education students in Australia, 38 per cent of all overseas enrolments.
But India, where Deakin and Monash universities have been operating since the mid-1990s, is a different proposition.
The number of Indian students in Australia has soared. Indian student commencements were up by more than 50 per cent in the year to the end of May.
Vice-chancellors have been doing road shows in cities such as Bangalore, in some cases offering bursaries, which might as well be labelled discounts, of up to 25 per cent on first-year fees.
But the one-way flow from India won’t last. As Salvatore Babones pointed out in his ‘catastrophe’ report, there are 24 million adults in China with incomes of over $50,000. In India there are just three million. India will never be an exporter of students on the scale of China.
Mercantile language aside, Professor Maskell agrees.
“The least important thing about the strategy is students coming to Australia. Attracting students is not why we’re doing this.
“We’re keen on collaboration and the benefit won’t be felt for five to eight years. Health, disability, water management, smart grids, agriculture. We’re investing in scholarships, student and staff exchanges.”
He was in Pune, western India, to present graduation certificates to the first students from the Svitribai Phule Pune University blended bachelor of science, jointly developed and launched in 2016. The graduates are eligible to do post-graduate study at Melbourne University.
In reality, the bleak future of falling Chinese enrolments described by Associate Professor Babones has already arrived. Commencements of Chinese students in Australia grew by just 2.4 per cent in the year to the end of May.
It’s at least 18 months since Beijing last warned would-be students in China about the hazards of studying in Australia, which means other factors are behind the slowdown.
Some universities are aiming for a more balanced mix of international students, among them ANU and Macquarie, which might account for some of the contraction in Chinese enrolments.
The CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, Phil Honeywood, says the drop-off has a social origin. In popular Chinese culture ‘Sea Turtles’ was a name given to graduates who came home brimming with good ideas and energy.
Now they’re called ‘Sea Weed’; they hang around looking for jobs. The cachet of a foreign university doesn’t do for a Chinese CV in China what it did only a couple of years ago. And when it does, US universities are preferenced.
This is not unwelcome news to Professor Babones, who teaches sociology at the University of Sydney. He wrote about the business risk to Australian universities from overexposure to China. But in an interview with The Australian Financial Review he had a bigger misgiving, relating to teaching.
The urban myth about the Australian-born Chinese student who found himself in a business-school class with only Mandarin-speaking students and a Chinese teacher is not apocryphal, he said. The teacher started teaching in Mandarin and the Chinese Australian had no idea what was going on.
Classes with large numbers of Chinese students are a liability for university teachers.
“With discussion groups, if we don’t take affirmative action to spread Chinese students among native English-speaking students, we end up with Mandarin-speaking students in groups where no one is able to speak English.
“But if I spread them out among the English speakers I get: A. complaints from Australian students and B. accused of racial profiling.”
It’s even more compromising when it comes to written work.
“Some students don’t read and write English well enough and don’t understand what to do.
“It’s an unspoken but widely understood rule in humanities and social sciences that we are expected to help students pass. Or at least not expected to be failing them.
“People are getting degrees who probably shouldn’t. With Australian students it’s laziness. With Chinese students it’s language.”
Professor Babones doesn’t have a solution for finding new income. Informed by his expertise, the demographics of middle-income countries, he says India will never fill the gap.
“There are simply not enough well-off people in India. There is just one state in India that is richer than the poorest state of China.”
Sydney University, which gets more than half a billion dollars in Chinese student revenue, says it is diversifying its income and is seeing an increase in students from the US, UK and Canada.
“Any emphasis on China on our campus reflects China’s role in broader society,” said a spokesperson for vice-chancellor Michael Spence.
“China is Australia’s largest neighbour, accounts for 30 per cent of our export earnings, provides the heritage of around one in 10 Sydneysiders and makes up about 20 per cent of the world’s population.”
After two years of zero growth in student income owing to a government freeze, and a mandated maximum growth of 1.4 per cent in 2020 when the freeze ends, universities are feeling the pressure.
“The funding challenges Australia’s public research-intensive universities face in delivering education, research, research training, knowledge translation and community outreach are significant and complex,” Dr Spence’s representative said.
“Relying on any single source of funding would be problematic, and we depend on revenues from a range of sources, including the Australian government, industry collaborations and philanthropy.”
Speaking from India, Melbourne University’s Professor Maskell said, “We’re not tired of China.”
But a day later he launched a strategy to “lead the expansion of education and academic co-operation between Australia and Indonesia”.
Since the free trade agreement between Jakarta and Canberra came a step closer in March, universities have been talking up the possibilities. But complications over ownership models, repatriation of profit and the religious requirements of teaching organisations in the Muslim country have made progress slow.
Melbourne University’s Indonesia strategy starts out modestly: A post-doctoral program, a professional education centre, a health network and a prospective ”graduate school”.
As far as Indonesian students coming to Australia: there were 2170 commencements in 2019, which is only fractionally above the number in 2016.
In Professor Babones’s report on China students, three of the four recommendations to offset the risks required universities to be more transparent in their data.
None of the universities publish a breakdown by country of students on their campus.
“Transparency is the way we fix things in democratic societies,” said Professor Babones.
“When politicians or administrators know they are being watched they behave better.”