ROGER SCOTT. Universities and the competition for international students

Dec 11, 2018

Compared to Britain, Australia has been highly successful in its venture into international education over the past decade but a number of writers have raised concerns over the continuing viability of depending on this source of funding into the future.  

University systems are in trouble all over the world. The British Vice-Chancellors recently sought an assessment from a media and business professional, Margaret Hoffernan, ‘to advise university leaders on how to create healthy working cultures’. She suggested that the injection of competition into higher education has been dangerous and deplored the pressures on both students and system managers leading to ‘weird behaviour, including student plagiarism and academic fraud’. Hoffernan singled out rankings as particularly pernicious in their effect on university managers (see Anthea Lipsett, ‘The more academics compete, the fewer ideas they shareThe Guardian, 5.12.18).

This is a refrain now being echoed within individual institutions in Australia. There is a particular focus on the escalating dependence on recruitment of international students. The University of Queensland has the benefit of an unusually activist Chancellor, Peter Varghese. Varghese is helping to shape both local and national opinion about the virtue of reducing the dependence on Chinese students, particularly among the elite Group of Eight institutions but across the system as a whole (see Peter Varghese, ‘Australian Universities and ChinaPearls and Irritations, 20.10.18). He has advised all institutions and the national government about the benefits of seeking a more balanced mix, and specifically to attract students from the Indian sub-continent where American and British universities now have a stranglehold.

The problems facing Chinese students and their teachers was reported at length in an ABC program (‘Poor English, few jobs: Are Australian universities using international students as ‘cash cows’?’, Robert Burton-Bradley, Four Corners, 27.11.18). This started with the anecdote of a senior academic calling in an advanced-level Chinese student to discuss a routine course change and being confronted with the need to use the services of an interpreter to communicate. The program’s dismal report was tagged as ‘poor-English-no-jobs-little support’ and implied that the university system was at fault in misrepresenting the benefits which might flow to Chinese students.

A report, ‘Australia’s higher education overseas student industry: in a precarious state’ (APO, 21.11.180 by eminent sociologists Bob Birrell and Katharine Betts for the Australian Population Research Institute added context. In a wider analysis of market fragility of the current boom they note that most of the Group of Eight universities lean on the flexibility provided by this financial source, where overseas students represent over a third of total new students, and that the total number over the past four years has increased by 56%, with the increase almost entirely from China.

Contrary to popular perception, most of these Chinese students are not attracted by the possibility of staying on in Australia. They want to undertake degrees at universities ranked in the top 100 on ratings based primarily on research publications. Australia offers a congenial climate and an exotic lifestyle compared to the northern hemisphere with comparable vocational benefits of relevant qualifications competing against their home universities.

Birrell and Betts also identify a second student market for universities outside the Go8, students increasingly attracted from countries on the Indian sub-continent where the language barrier is not significant. These students hope to enter the Australian labour market after graduation to take advantage of the more attractive immigration rules compared to the US and UK. A report by the NOUS Group (see link to full report in Jonathan Chew, ‘International higher education tap at risk of running dry’ August 2018) suggested that ‘in crude terms, Australian universities can be categorised as being either “Chinese” universities or “Indian” universities.’.

The non-Go8 universities are particularly vulnerable to changes in the rules governing access of overseas student graduates to the Australian labour market and to permanent or long stay temporary visas. ‘The work-study visa is still intact. However, as a result of immigration reforms in 2017 and 2018, it is now far more difficult to access a permanent residence or a long-stay temporary work visa. These restrictions are likely to dampen recruitment levels in non-Go8 universities.’

Birrell and Betts identify the market vulnerability of the Chinese Go8 customers along both political strategic concerns and along lines similar to the ABC report: ‘The fear here is that the student flow from China could be arrested or reversed by Chinese government intervention in pursuit of its geopolitical agenda. This is a well-founded fear as our analysis demonstrates. Other concerns include competition for such a lucrative market from other countries, and from universities within China itself.’

Birrell and Betts also suggest the uncomfortable truth getting air-time on the ABC – the low quality of the education that Chinese students are receiving: ‘The Go8 are primarily catering to Chinese students whose English language skills are weak. … The universities have had to adjust their teaching and assessment to the capabilities of these students. For this reason they do not produce highly trained professionals. Go8 claims that these graduates are “incredibly well trained” are not credible’.

Hoffernan concluded that the existential question British vice-chancellors need to ponder is whether universities are educational machines or communities. Australian university leaders face a similar set of challenges concerning the balance between precarious sources of finances derived from overseas and politically unreliable support at home via public funding geared to Australian priorities. Do export earnings ‘trump’ development of local human capital?

Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration in the University of Queensland and former Director-General of Education in Queensland. He was the Inaugural Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation in Brisbane. 

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