Resources required to sell state’s credentials

04/05/2015 - 10:49

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WA’s private colleges are finding it tough to bounce back from the once-high $A and perception of the state as an expensive destination.

COST-EFFECTIVE: John Paxton with students at the Perth International School of English. Photo: Attila Csaszar

WA’s private colleges are finding it tough to bounce back from the once-high $A and perception of the state as an expensive destination.

Western Australia’s private colleges want the state government to do more to market Perth’s learning credentials and capture a bigger share of the new wave of education arrivals in Australia.

The softer dollar has cut the cost of studying in Australia and boosted student visas by as much as 20 per cent Australia wide, but this surge is not reflected in enrolment growth at Perth’s language colleges, including the Perth International College of English.

One of the biggest problems, according to PICE managing director John Paxton, is Perth’s reputation as an expensive destination.

He said WA was always a bit behind Sydney and Melbourne in terms of enrolment trends, and the negative chatter in the social media space was not helpful.

“There’s been some talk in social media that Perth is a very expensive place to live and it’s not true, but the power of social media in this industry is extraordinary,” Mr Paxton said.

“It costs $4.50 to buy a cup of coffee in Perth where as it costs $3.50 in Melbourne, but home-stay (accommodation) is $40 a week cheaper in Perth than in Sydney and transport is 40 per cent less.”

Enrolments at PICE have grown by about 15 per cent in the past 12 months, but Mr Paxton said his colleagues in Sydney were reporting increases closer to 30 per cent.

Like many colleges, PICE was hit hard by the high Australian dollar as well as changes to student visas in 2010, which made it harder for students to come to Australia to learn.

The education industry is Australia’s third-biggest export earner, pulling in about $16 billion last year; and yet the sector hits well below its weight in terms of public profile.

WA’s share of this income is estimated to be at least 10 per cent, or between $1.6 billion and $2 billion.

“We all know that Perth is a large hole in the ground that brings in a truck load of money but … as an income generating industry for the state education is left in the background,” Mr Paxton said.

He said the ripple effect of overseas students is significant, supporting a range of industries, including retail, transport and travel.

Many families will travel to visit their child while they’re studying in Perth, and while this brings tourists to the city, the sector claims more needs to be done to market Perth to prospective students.

Mike Ryan heads up Study Perth, a state-funded body tasked with boosting the city’s profile as an education destination.

Mr Ryan said the biggest challenge for Study Perth was doing more with less.

“Our budget has declined each year for the past five years,” Mr Ryan told Business News.

“To be visible in the markets we are competing with requires resources, and our competing cities like Melbourne are investing huge money.

“It’s like fielding 15 people in a football team and wondering why you’re not winning, when you should have 18 people in a team.”

He said the sector needed a stronger, bolder profile that reflected the benefits of education not just as an innovative, growing industry, but as a major export.

“My personal belief is having been vested with such resource riches has made us a bit lazy or complacent,” Mr Ryan said.

The fall in the Australian dollar had made Australia more competitive internationally, and Mr Ryan said WA needed to seize this opportunity and put more money into marketing Perth’s unique attributes.

He would not reveal Study Perth’s budget but it’s understood to be a fraction of Tourism WA’s, which was $89 million for 2014-2015.

The plunge in the iron ore price has sharpened the WA government’s focus on the state’s non-mining economy, including growth sectors such as education.

Premier Colin Barnett said WA already used its trade connections with neighbours China and India to attract international students to WA.

And he said the issue of WA education opportunities was always raised when he met with international representatives.

“During my recent visit to India, opportunities in tertiary education and training was discussed at meetings with Mumbai University and the Indian education and skills ministers,” Mr Barnett said.

“I have always believed that having international students in Western Australia not only gives those students access to a world-class education, it also presents a unique opportunity to build close cultural, social and economic ties with overseas students and families and brings long-term benefits to us all.”

The state government did not reveal whether it had plans to increase funding for Study Perth, but it did confirm Education Minister Peter Collier was planning a trip to China and Vietnam later this year to build on existing links and identify opportunities to attract students to WA.

International student commencements in WA increased by 13.48 per cent to 28,309 from 2013 to 2014, with Chinese students still representing the biggest cohort, followed by India and Brazil.

Perth’s Milner College is Australia’s oldest family owned institution and its co-founder Warren Milner has a 31-year perspective on the sector.

He said the biggest changes in the sector were the rise of the corporate groups such as Kaplan and Navitas as well as opportunistic operators, which had found ways around the strict regulations in place for English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS courses).

He said these education groups offered English as a vocational and educational training course, which meant they did not need to adhere to strict rules around class size or the quality of teaching.

“We are lobbying to have these loopholes closed, we have employed a professional lobbyist in Canberra but it’s difficult to get anything done,” Mr Milner said.

Concerns about opportunistic education operations come amid mounting concerns that students are using study visas to work in Australia.

Students can work for up to 20 hours a week on a student visa but they must meet strict study requirements. However, a number of so called rogue operators in the market provide sub-standard courses to allow students to cheaply meet these obligations.

It’s a complex area and there are a number of pressure points across the education and immigration systems, but there are fears these opportunistic operations could tarnish the reputation of Australia’s education sector.

One high-profile education advocate is the Business Council of Australia, which Study Perth said had been instrumental in sharing the education story with state and federal politicians.

The BCA warned the key to expanding this “vital export market” was improving the quality of the education products and experiences.

Chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the sector also needed to harness digital technology to take Australian education content to the Asian market.

“The traditional offshore campus model hasn’t always been financially successful for institutions so we need to think about this differently,” Ms Westacott said.

“We need to encourage some innovative ideas on how to take our quality education products to learners, not just rely on learners coming to us.”

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