As the familiar mantra says, the education of international students is Australia’s third largest export, behind only iron ore and coal. New trade figures reveal Australia’s education export earnings stood at a record $21.8 billion in 2016 while income from education grew by 17 per cent on 2015 – the strongest annual growth since 2010.

This month Education Minister Simon Birmingham had even more reason to smile – at least about international education – with the latest figures revealing international student numbers grew by 14 per cent in the first four months of 2017 compared to the same period last year, reaching a record 492,000 students across all education sectors.

“Australia’s success in international education contributed $22.4 billion to the Australian economy in 2016 and supported over 130,000 jobs,” Birmingham said, adding that Australia had become the “destination of choice” for record numbers of students from more than 200 nations.

And the good news continues. According to research by the Australian Universities International Directors’ Forum (AUIDF) international graduates are transitioning into the workforce at comparable rates to domestic students. Graduates also reported “high levels of satisfaction” with their studies in Australia.

In Austrade’s bullish view, the sector can grow to 720,000 students by 2025 while its “high market-share scenario” sees the numbers doubling to nearly 990,000 by 2025, with the potential for 110 million students by 2025 if MOOCs and other technologies live up to promise.

So far so rosy: but 2016 was the year pundits and pollsters were dealt a sharp kick in the pants by Brexit and the Donald Trump presidency.

International education is a child of globalisation, but the globalisation project now appears under threat and in the words of the French writer Paul Arbair we could be witnessing a “big, bold jump into the unknown”.

In the short term at least, international education in the US and the UK is likely to take a hit.

Hans de Wit predicts that their already declining market share will further decrease over the next four to five years, with enrolments progressively declining “because of anti-immigration policies and the negative perceptions of many students and their families”.

Australia’s main international student competitors are the US and UK, (19 per cent and 10 per cent of the market respectively), followed by France, Germany, Japan and Canada, with China and India working hard to expand their international education offerings including by offering courses in English and online.

On the face of it, what is bad news for the northern hemisphere is good news for the southern.

A 2015 report by Deloitte Access Economics for Austrade projected that international student growth is expected to continue from China and India, with the Philippines and Thailand offering strong potential along with opportunities in Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

By far the biggest source region for Australia is Asia which currently supplies 76 per cent of students – 39 per cent from North East Asia, 19 per cent from Southern and Central Asia, and 18 per cent from South-East Asia.

Chris Lester, chief executive of the Good Education Group, told The Australian he thought it was time for Australian university recruiters to “look beyond Asia and capitalise on Australia’s prime position as an alternative welcoming destination for students looking to study abroad”.

But this is not the view of Alex Frino, deputy vice-chancellor (international) at the University of Wollongong, who said a move to diversify away from China would be misguided and pointless “because the economic prosperity of most countries that send students to us are tied to China”, adding:

“If the Chinese economy tanks, and the number of students China sends us falls, so will the number of students from other countries. Diversification only makes sense if we source from countries whose economies are not related to China.”

And there we may just have a glimpse of the tiniest dark cloud on the horizon.

What if China’s economy tanks?

According to recent official data China’s economic growth is currently at 6.9 per cent, slightly ahead of analyst forecasts, although officials are maintaining a cautious tone.

As reported by the ABC, China’s National Bureau of Statistics said in a statement accompanying the data that although its economy continued to show steady progress in the first half “international instability and uncertainties are still relatively large, and the domestic long-term buildup of structural imbalances remain”.

Another question for the not so distant future is, will China remain content to be a ‘sender’ of international students rather than be a ‘receiver’?

Hans de Wit foresees an increase in intra-regional mobility: in Southeast Asia (in particular to China); in Central Asia (in particular to Russia); in Latin America, Africa, and in the Middle East.

“Asia will become an alternative to Europe and North America for students from other regions of the world.”

Further, as reported in The Pie News, the Chinese Government’s latest plan for international education is aimed at strengthening China’s image as an attractive study destination, boosting the quality of its international education offerings, and encouraging partnerships with foreign education institutions and enterprise.

All of this poses no immediate threat to Australian international education. But today shock and surprise are the new normal.

Who is brave enough to bet the good times will continue to roll forever?

One trusts that the Council for International Education, chaired by Education Minister Simon Birmingham and comprising six government ministers and 11 expert members, will think carefully as they place their bets during the ongoing rollout of Australia’s National Strategy for International Education 2025 and the Australian International Education 2025 market development ‘roadmap’.



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