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Aus: Student numbers surpass 2016 totals, future outlook unclear

Australia’s international education industry has strengthened across the board, pushing student numbers to new record levels according to the latest data. But doubts have started to emerge over how long the country can maintain its growth streak.

Records have continued to fall for Australian international education, but clouds are starting to form, as the country's reliance on China increases. Photo: PexelsRecords continued to fall for Australian international education, but clouds are starting to form, as the country's reliance on China increases. Photo: Pexels

The number of international students within Australia currently sits at 9.4% above the 554,200 for the whole of 2016

Year to October data, released by the Department of Education and Training, shows more than 606,700 international students have entered Australia so far in 2017, a 13% increase from the level achieved by the same time in 2016, while enrolments and commencements also experienced double-digit percentage growth.

“The more Australia can do to discover or seek out new markets, the better for the international education sector as a whole”

“This latest data shows Australia’s international education sector continues to go from strength-to-strength and the high regard the rest of the world holds for Australian universities and training providers,” education minister Simon Birmingham told The PIE News.

“It’s demonstration that the sector is booming and students are flocking to Australia in record numbers to take advantage of our world-class higher education providers,” Birmingham added.

The surge in numbers has also pushed up total revenue, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicating the 12 months to September period grew to a landmark $29.4bn, up from $28.4bn last quarter.

The figure for students, enrolments and commencements as of October has already surpassed that for the whole of 2016.

The number of international students within Australia currently sits 9.4% above the 2016 total of 554,200, while enrolments and commencements – the number of new enrolments in a calendar year – are 7.5% and 2% higher, respectively.

English Australia noted September 2017’s figures were 6.7% down from September 2016

While the figures are welcomed in Australia, not all sectors and source markets experienced consistent improvements, casting doubt over how long the boom will last.

Although 3.3% above the previous year’s October figures, ELICOS stands alone as the only sector to not yet surpass 2016 totals, and after a strong first half of 2017, experienced two consecutive declines in commencements in August and September.

It was the only major sector to do so.

In its latest market analysis report, English Australia noted September 2017’s figures were 6.7% down from September 2016, representing “arguably the first poor month at the national aggregate level for ELICOS in recent years.”

Meanwhile, China further strengthened its position as Australia’s top source market, increasing 18% from the same period in 2016 and pushing its market share across all sectors from 27.5% to approximately 30%; reaching as high as 60% for some sectors.

But China’s strong showing could represent a double-edged sword, according to IEAA chief executive Phil Honeywood.

“There is a growing concern that Australia is overly reliant on the Chinese market,” he said.

“The more Australia can do to discover or seek out new markets, the better for the international education sector as a whole.”

“A balance needs to be found”

Furthermore, during a year in which Australian headlines have repeatedly featured concerns over China’s alleged interference – causing Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to recently announce plans to ban foreign political donations – Honeywood told The PIE News that the country might be doing itself damage.

“It’s not been helpful that Australian elected politicians and former politicians from all parties have been seen to be kowtowing to a large degree, to Chinese financial interests,” he said, alluding to ongoing reports an Australian opposition senator accepted funds from a Chinese donor, which eventually resulted in the senator’s resignation.

“Obviously, it’s in both China and Australia’s future interests to ensure that common sense prevails, which means the Chinese need more cognisant of Australians’ concerns, and equally, Australia needs to understand that China is very keen to rapidly enhance its global profile and involvement.

“A balance needs to be found between these two extremes.”

How that balance is found is unclear as Australian-Chinese relations sour, with the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Daily, publishing another in a series of pieces blasting Australian media as “paranoid” and “racist”.

There have been ongoing concerns that China is politicising its international student cohort to gain soft power, with Taiwanese academic and researcher Sheng-Ju Chan telling The PIE this year that the country was using “students as a valve to control their influence on a particular area.”

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