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Australia regaining favour in South Asia, agent survey suggests

Australia appears to be regaining favour in markets in South Asia according to a survey of agents in the region. However, Australia’s popularity level is far from its peak in 2009.

International students in Australia. Photo: Study Melbourne.

Last year's figures show the country is still almost 36,000 South Asian students short of its peak in 2009

Australia’s attractiveness in the region dropped significantly in 2010, now a commonly told tale in the sector of a reputation damaging perfect storm of tightened visa restrictions, a high Australian dollar and a series of highly-publicised attacks against Indian students in the country.

From 2009 to 2012, the number of students from South Asia halved, with Indian numbers further shrinking by almost 60%. Last year’s figures show the country is still almost 36,000 South Asian students short of its peak in 2009, with the greatest gap seen in Indian enrolments.

“South Asia represents the largest region that has not yet fully recovered its enrolment levels from the market’s problems several years ago”

However, Australia-based agent training and market intelligence firm PIER’s survey of some 300 agents in India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka indicates that attitudes are turning positive for Australia.

Almost three quarters (74.4%) of agents say they had a favourable or very favourable perception of the country.

Among agents in India, Australia’s second largest source market, perceptions were almost 70% favourable for the country while in Pakistan it was 100% positive.

Alongside the shift in perception, numbers are slowly starting to recover, exhibiting a marked shift away from vocational education providers towards higher education institutions.

“The results show the hard work that was undertaken by the Australian international education industry over the past twelve months has paid off,” noted Chris Evason, managing director of PIER.

The survey also showed that over 60% of South Asian respondents said their view of Australia was better than the same time last year. “As a destination market, I think that is something to celebrate,” said Evason.

Agents cited the Australia’s post-study work rights and its newly implemented simplified student visa framework as positives for the country.

Over half of respondents said post-study work rights either had a significant influence on or was the deciding factor for students choosing Australia. Less than 10% said it had little to no influence.

However, with 11% of respondents saying they have an unfavourable perception of Australia, there is still room for improvement, Evason said.

“South Asia represents the largest region that has not yet fully recovered its enrolment levels from the market’s problems several years ago. The report shows the diverse reasons for this outcome and includes concerns around visas or the way in which Australia responds to complaints,” Evason commented.

Perceptions among Bengali agents in particular are split, with 57% of agents given a positive response and the remaining 43% saying their perception was “neutral” or “unfavourable”.

The cancellation of the 457 visa and the country’s Genuine Temporary Entrant system are among agents’ criticisms of the country as a study destination.

Just over 50% of agents said the cancellation of the 457 visa had somewhat of an effect on students.

“Recent changes in migration and citizenship laws have caused uneasiness about Australia”

“Recent changes in migration and citizenship laws have caused uneasiness about Australia,” wrote one agent. “People prefer to talk about Canada and consider Canada as having consistent policies. Unfortunately, Australia’s perception is negative, and the policies seem inconsistent and politically motivated.”

Canada, the US and New Zealand are the most popular alternative destinations among agents, the report notes.

When it comes to responding to student complaints, just 16% of agents said Australian providers responded perfectly while 35.1% say most responses were “good”. Eighteen per cent said Australia was below average with its response to complaints, favouring towards “poor” rather than “terrible”.

Despite residual negative perceptions of Australia, Evason said, “Nevertheless, the region is the ‘low-hanging fruit’ for Australia to make the biggest gains in future enrolment growth.

“Considering both the region’s student numbers are still 20% down from its high-water mark and the level of growth experienced in other areas, properly addressing issues for South Asian students could see enrolment figures far exceed previous levels,” he counselled.

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