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Schooled in the art of business

A REPORT by the WA Auditor General on public universities caught my attention the other day, but it was the research following that I found most captivating.

You would have to have been living on another planet, well at least in another country, not to have realised just how much our universities rely on foreign students these days.

For instance, more than 15 per cent of students at Curtin University of Technology’s Australian campuses are foreigners – about 4,500 out of 29,000 – and most are paying fees up front at the full retail rate.

This is an important part of most universities diet these days as programs get more expensive and governments tighten up their funding.

But the real growth for the universities appears to be in another part of the international market – the real export side of the business.

Australian universities these days are looking to partner with offshore institutions to export their knowledge – curriculum and assessment – to students who no longer have to uproot themselves and live here to get the same standards of education.

Obviously there are risks in this approach.

As the auditor general found, Murdoch University is chasing at least one partner for unpaid fees after providing for a doubtful debt of $2.2 million.

At Curtin, contracts had been drawn up that did not require independent verification of milestones within the arrangements – something the auditor general perceived as a risk.

However, these issues, which both universities say have been dealt with, have simply drawn my attention to something that I was not aware of.

This is a giant new business opportunity for our educators, one that is not limited by the physical infrastructure of our campuses, the strictness of our, at times, ridiculous immigration policies or the obvious limits to the ability of our neighbours to afford to be expatriate students.

It is how the so-called new economy really can work in its ultimate form, the export of knowledge.

Curtin claims to be a leader in this field and has its own campus in Sarawak, Malaysia, and several partnership arrangements throughout the region, including China.

It already has 7000 students taking its courses outside Australia.

This is not distance education. These people attend some sort of class on a regular basis.

More than half of this number are doing Curtin-badged courses, while the other 2500 are doing courses supplied and controlled by Curtin but badged under another institutions name.

The big issue is making sure there is a profit in all of this.

Curtin reckons it is prepared to lose a bit of money making each partnership work in the short term. However, apart from a few start-up ventures, it says its programs are profitable.

But there are whispers that not every Australian university is making such headway.

Business in Asia takes a special knowledge that would not be helped by the failure of partnership that results in a tarnished reputation.

The auditor general was right to pay close attention to this particular field of endeavour.

Financial problems in the English education industry hurt that growth industry in WA more than a decade ago.

We don’t need such things to affect the reputations of universities.

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