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Australia must diversify further, former PM suggests

Australia’s AUKUS submarine deal with the US and UK, part of a new trilateral partnership, has increased apprehension that economic ties with China could further deteriorate, leading to impacts on the international education sector.

Failure to diversify recruitment beyond China might create a revenue gap, stakeholders continue to suggest. Photo: pexels

Chinese student enrolments in Go8 universities grew by 5.7% over the last year

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has cautioned that Australian Universities are at risk of losing out on enrolments from China. He has advised them to start diversifying their international student pools, as geopolitics could make the inflow of large numbers of Chinese students a collateral casualty.

“It strikes me that universities in this country need to radically pivot”

“It strikes me that universities in this country need to radically pivot to markets such as South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the traditional market in India,” he said.

“And also markets, frankly, in the Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”

Chinese students make a large proportion of international students in Australia, however, their numbers have gone down from 211,965 in December 2019 to 160,061 in July 2021, which is a decline by 25%.

Perth US-Asia Centre’s research director Jeffrey Wilson said that next on the list for China’s trade sanctions could be international students and tourism, as most other Australian export sectors had already been sanctioned by China.

“Most of the ammunition has already been fired [because] China has applied trade sanctions to nearly all of Australia’s major exports where it is able to,” he said.

The geopolitical tensions might mean the number of Chinese students in Australian universities could reduce further in coming years.

Chinese students have shown a greater propensity to study in Group of Eight universities than the rest of Australian universities, accounting for 70% of all Chinese student enrolments in Australia. While the enrolments in Go8 universities grew by 5.7% over the last year, those in the non-Go8 universities plummeted by 18%.

“Australian universities have been diversifying very vigorously and actively over the last five to 10 years. We have a huge number of international students that are not from China,” explained Iain Watt, deputy vice chancellor and vice president (International) at University of Technology Sydney.

“There is nothing yet that indicates to me that AUKUS will have an impact on flows of international students. The continuing conflict between our government and the government of China, as far as I can tell, is not going to flow through into the relationship between the people of Australia and the people of China,” he told The PIE.

“Our communities are still just as welcoming of Chinese students, as they’ve ever been, and to the best of my knowledge, the Chinese students are still just as keen to come to Australia as they’ve ever been.”

Other popular study destinations – including the US, the UK, and Canada – have similar tensions with China, Watt continued.

“I do not think it is in the interest of the CCP to prevent their students from accessing international education.

“It seems very unlikely to me, that the Chinese government is going to limit flows to us and encourage flows to the US,” he added.

Demand among international students from China, India and all other countries for Australian education is “still very strong”.

“Australia’s record of keeping people safe during Covid-19 will stand us in good stead”

“And, in fact Australia’s record of keeping people safe during Covid-19 will stand us in good stead in the medium to longer term and make us more preferred a destination, rather than less preferred.”

In the meantime, various industry analyses and reports have brought out the need for Australia’s HE sector to diversify beyond traditional markets, especially China. Failure to do so might create a revenue gap which might be difficult to fill.

On a brighter note though, Austrade in its presentation during the recently concluded English Australia Conference had highlighted that market diversification in terms of prospective international students was high on their agenda for the near future.

International education is Australia’s fourth largest export and it is the third largest international education provider country in the world. With the Chinese share of this pie being the largest, the stakes couldn’t foreseeably be higher.

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