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Friday, May 22, 2015, 10:15

Premium put on learning Down Under

By KARL WILSON in Sydney
Premium put on learning Down Under
The Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School building at the University of Technology in Sydney. Foreign students, with the majority coming from Asia, account for more than 25 percent of some Australian universities’ revenue. (AFP)

Li Chen (not his real name) was under no illusions when he managed to get a place at one of Sydney’s universities to study journalism.

His parents are not rich, but they managed to scrape together his fees for the first year, airfare and money for accommodation. “I knew it would not be easy,” says the soft-spoken Li.

He slept in a two-bedroom flat virtually next door to the university with six other Chinese students, each paying A$150 ($119) a week in rent.

Li’s student visa only allowed him to work 20 hours a week as a kitchen hand in a Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown. But like many foreign students, he worked longer hours and was paid less than the legal requirement.

“Like many foreign students, you don’t complain,” he says. “You need the money to survive.” He adds that Sydney is “a very expensive city, but the experience was worth it”.

Unlike many Chinese students who come from privileged backgrounds, Li is an exception.

In Sydney, especially around the main university precincts, flats, units and townhouses are snapped up before they are built by overseas buyers.

Many of the students live in their own apartments bought by their parents. They have cars and receive money from home, and many have their own credit cards.

Last year around 550,000 foreign students were living and studying in Australia, almost half of them at universities and paying huge fees for the privilege.

The majority come from Asia, with the top countries being China, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia.

In 1994 the number of foreign students in Australia was less than 100,000, according to government data. Today, it is estimated that Chinese students alone comprise some 80,000 of foreigners studying at Australian universities, and the number is growing.

The education sector employs nearly 8 percent of Australia’s work force. It is the country’s fourth-largest export earner, after coal, iron ore and natural gas, bringing in around A$16 billion in the 2013/14 financial year.

Andrew MacIntyre, deputy vice-chancellor international and vice-president of RMIT University in Melbourne, says international students have become an important revenue source for Australia’s universities.

“The reason for that is simple: Asia is where the bulk of the world’s population lives and you are seeing a rapid rise in income levels,” he says.

For universities in Australia, foreign students have become a much sought-after income stream, accounting for more than 25 percent of some universities’ revenue.

Economic contribution

However, reports of international students being exploited by employers, being taken advantage of by dubious landlords and falling victim to racism on public transport have not done the export education industry any favors, said Catherine Gomes, a senior research fellow at RMIT University, in a paper published last year.

She added that foreign students have become significant contributors to the Australian economy.

“They support related secondary industries, particularly in the capital cities,” Gomes said. “The construction industry has created university precincts with high-rise accommodation in cities such as Melbourne and Sydney to meet the demand for inner-city student apartments.”

The hospitality and tourism industry also benefits from foreign students, she said, adding they “further contribute to the economy through casual and seasonal work”.

A 2013 report prepared by the International Education Advisory Council, chaired by Australian businessman Michael Chaney, predicted a 30 percent increase in enrolments by 2020, meaning international students could contribute over $20 billion to the Australian economy in the future.

Chinese students will play a key part in this growth, as they currently make up 40 percent of international enrolments.

Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said Chinese students were opting for Australian universities for a number of reasons.

“Some Chinese students and their parents complain that (with) Chinese universities it’s much more rote learning, class sizes are huge … you’ve got very little space for students to really kind of express themselves,” Brown was quoted as saying by the Study Group, a company which provides specialized educational programs for international students.

RMIT University’s MacIntyre says Chinese students are drawn to Australia for its quality of education, the lifestyle and because they consider Australia a safe and secure place.

“And Chinese society places a high value on education,” he adds.

It is not only universities that are attracting foreign students. Australia’s state schools saw a 17 percent increase in primary and high school enrolments last year, mostly from Asia.

“Students’ families have been willing to pay up to A$10,000 a year to send their children to one of the country’s public primary schools, and A$15,000 a year for a public high school,” the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, reported recently.

English education

Last year, there were almost 4,300 new enrolments of Chinese teenagers in Australian public and private schools, which translated to a rise of 20 percent on the previous year’s new enrolments, based on data from the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade).

The total number of enrolments of Chinese school students rose to 8,386 in 2014, up from 7,447 in 2013.

Minglu Chen, a lecturer at the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, said families were looking for better English education and a pathway to top Australian universities for their children.

“This is what we could expect from China’s growing economy, which at the moment is the second largest economy in the world, which actually also has a growing middle class,” Chen told the ABC.

Chen added that Chinese parents, particularly wealthy middle class ones, “would prefer their children to be educated in an English-speaking society”.

A new visa system is another reason for the rise in enrolments of Chinese high school students in Australia.

In 2014, rules were relaxed to allow teenagers to come to Australia on a student visa as early as Year 7, the first year of secondary education.

So will the flow of Chinese students seeking education in Australia continue?

MacIntyre says students will continue to seek higher qualifications overseas, “but higher education is highly globalized these days and you are finding more and more universities opening campuses outside their home countries”.

“At the end of the day it is all about getting the best education,” he concludes.


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