Three of Australia's biggest universities are cutting hundreds of staff because of a fall in the number of foreign students. The multi-billion dollar education industry has been one of Australia's most profitable export-earning sectors but the latest official figures suggest the overseas student boom may be at end because of financial constraints and changes to immigration rules.
The education industry here boasts that Australia is a “vibrant and friendly country” in which foreign students can “live, learn and grow.” Last year 240,000 enrolled on various tertiary courses, up from 180,000 in 2008. Vast numbers came from China and India.
Glenn Withers, the head of Universities Australia, a lobby group, says the education industry is struggling. “For higher education it's plateaued. For total education in fact it's collapsed substantially, just for the last year fell almost 10 percent. That's mostly in the private colleges not the universities," he noted.
Many Australian universities rely on the tuition and fees from young foreigners but the softening of such a valuable market is forcing the University of Sydney to shed hundreds of jobs and other institutions are also cutting staff.
At Macquarie University in Sydney, about 50 workers are taking voluntary redundancy largely because of falling numbers of overseas students.
Many blame the high Australian dollar, making schools more expensive, and increased global competition from the United States and Britain for the dropping foreign enrollment.
Withers says Australia’s tougher immigration rules also played a role.
“We had a number of issues around student visas and migration where the government introduced new settings that made it really difficult for students to feel welcome and for those who wanted to stay on to be able to do so,” he said.
Withers says that the government is responding to these concerns and that immigration regulations will soon become less onerous on young foreigners.
Starting next year, students will face less strict visa requirements. Those who come from so-called high risk countries, such as India and China, where students were thought more likely to overstay their visas, will not need to provide a cash deposit before being allowed into Australia.
The reforms also allow international university students to work in Australia temporarily after finishing their courses. The changes, however, will not apply to private educational intuitions.
There is also a concerted effort by some universities to make it easier for the Chinese to study in Australia. The University of Sydney is considering easing its entry requirements to attract more students from China.
India is another valuable source of students, although Australia’s reputation there did suffer because of a series of attacks on young foreigners in recent years in Sydney and Melbourne. Student groups say that although the violence took place about two years ago, it has continued to taint India’s view of Australia as a safe and productive country.