2020 marked a turning point in the lives of many individuals. Border closure due to Covid affected the arrival of international students onshore and the geopolitical tension between Australia and China led to a rethink of Australian universities’ internationalisation strategy.

Both government and institutions recognised the need to diversify. The traditional reliance on China as a significant international student and transnational education market is now collateral damage in uncertain times, which creates eagerness to make in-roads into India – the following biggest country after China in terms of population.

But is India the next big transnational (or cross-border) higher education country for Australia?

transnational higher education (TNE) has never been a social good

Transnational higher education at Australian universities has never been positioned as a social good despite being a good way for universities to engage internationally for knowledge sharing.

As a service, the price of Australian degrees offered in offshore partnership arrangements is usually lower than the fees charged to international students onshore. The lower price point appeals to many medium-income households and to students who can’t afford to study abroad or, for other reasons, are unable to pursue a degree with their public universities.

However, such foreign degrees are usually more expensive than the degrees offered by public universities in the host countries. For example, a Singapore citizen will pay an onshore international student fee of $A40 320 per year in 2023  to study the Bachelor of Business at RMIT in Australia but only around $A15 000 per year in Singapore through SIM Global Education in Singapore, a partner of RMIT. A similar degree costs around S$9600 (A$ 10 480) if undertaken with the National University of Singapore

For Australian universities, financial profitability or at least financial sustainability is critical for TNE, perceived as higher-risk undertakings. Those of us who work in TNE know it can be an expensive to deliver and maintaining high quality requires many resources.

Given this, can India replaces China as one of the major TNE markets for Australia – with the price point and the student size needed?

a reality check

Both countries are fertile ground for Australia in TNE. Altbach points to the fact that India is now the world’s second largest higher education system, with around 38 million students in 50,000 academic institutions (including 1,057 universities) and a goal of doubling gross enrolment rates from the current 26.3 per cent to 50 per cent by 2035. China in comparison, registers registers around 32 million students studying with 2700 public tertiary institutions.

According to the Chinese-Foreign Cooperation Running School website, there are currently around 120 Australian degree programmes registered with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

India, which has been more restrictive on TNE activities, has limited experience in the area. However, the recent changes in the University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations, has paved the way for more TNE opportunities. Despite Australian universities and government institutions flocking to India to seek different education collaboration opportunities, the reality is, India might not be ready to overtake China as a TNE hosting country.

India – A price-sensitive and complex higher education market

China and India both have a huge population around 1.4 billion population.

However, anecdotal evidence points to India as a highly price-sensitive international education market. This is not surprising. In 2021, the median wealth of China was US $26 752, whereas India’s was US$3295. China also has a larger middle class population (504m) compared to India (99m).

The impact of Covid on both economies is also predicted to be different. Pew Research Centre predicts India’s middle class will likely shrink further to 66m, while China remains relatively stable at around 493m. Affordability and price points of foreign degrees will continue more sensitive considerations for families and students in India compared to China, given Australian degrees are not known as cheap options.

There is also a question of partner institutions for Australian universities. It is easier to differentiate education provider quality in China than in India. China has a centralised high school examination allowing the use of cut-off scores for entry into universities as a proxy of quality. In addition, the 985 and 211 Projects allocate funding to enhance quality of key discipline areas, making the quality of universities easier to infer.

On the other hand, India has a complex higher education with many providers and diverse quality and standards. While one can infer quality by the National Assessment and Accreditation  Council,  only around  400 universities are accredited this year.

Differing regulations on which foreign institutions can offer TNE programmes 

Both China and India have introduced relatively tight control over what types of foreign universities could partner with local institutions to offer TNE degrees. Despite being highly regulated, in China, almost 38 out of 42 Australian universities registered some form of TNE programme. China recognises and permits Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency accredited higher education institutions for international education. On the other hand, India’s UGC regulations require foreign universities to be either on the top 1000 Times Higher Education Ranking or QS World Universities ranking.

This condition puts the eligible Australian HE providers at 36 if based on the 2022 Times Higher Education Ranking or 38 if based on the 2022 QS Working Universities Ranking. Given that a university’s ranking could change yearly and that TNE could take a long time to discuss, plan and implement, Australian universities and Indian institutions are likely to face more uncertainty in this process.

concluding comments

Australian higher education as a sector has made clear its desire to reduce its dependency on a few markets, and seemingly China, for its international student recruitment and TNE. While India has opened its doors wide to Australia, and encourages more TNE activities, the country is likely to need more time to become a conducive place for Australian universities’ TNE to flourish due to its economic strength and complex education environment. The reality is India is unlikely to replace China in this regard.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of any institutions the author associates with.

Associate Professor Fion Lim researches international education at UTS. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of any institutions the author associates with.


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