08/08/2013 - 08:35

Student enrolments hit by changes to immigration policy

08/08/2013 - 08:35


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WA could attract more international students if it marketed itself as an education destination.

SWITCH: Robynne Walsh says Phoenix Academy has switched its focus to the Chinese corporate market in the wake of the dramatic fall in student numbers.

WA could attract more international students if it marketed itself as an education destination.

A SHARP decline in Perth’s once-thriving Chinese student population is not expected to rebound any time soon despite the positive impact of a falling Australian dollar.

English language and training school Phoenix Academy estimates Chinese enrolments have slumped by as much as 30 per cent since 2010, leaving it with no choice but to refocus on the lucrative business English market.

Phoenix principal Robynne Walsh blames the slump in Chinese student numbers on changes to the federal government’s visa regime for international students in 2011, as well as Perth’s failure to effectively market itself as education destination.

The Chinese market is very brand conscious, according to Ms Walsh, which meant Perth had to work harder to market its credentials as a destination for Chinese students.

“WA Tourism has to do a lot more to get our brand out there,” Ms Walsh said.

“We need to sell the state as the powerhouse economy with the jobs and the future.”

Amid falling student numbers, Perth education providers also face a growing challenge from emerging education destinations such as the Philippines and Indonesia, which are working hard to increase their share of international students. Added to this, China itself is investing heavily in its education system.

To make up for the dramatic shortfall in enrolments, Ms Walsh has shifted Phoenix’s focus to China’s lucrative corporate market.

These are Chinese businessmen and women willing to pay big money to improve their business English and better understand the nuances of doing business in Australia.

It now accounts for 60 per cent of the income Phoenix derives from the Chinese market and Ms Walsh counts some of China’s biggest corporations among her clients, including Sinosteel and Baosteel.

Despite the demand for these short courses, however, Ms Walsh said securing visas for Chinese executives was an ongoing issue.

For Perth International College of English director John Paxton, the drop-off in numbers has affected staffing requirements. He has been forced to lay off teaching staff and slash class numbers to cope with the 30 per cent fall in enrolments in the past three years.

Mr Paxton blames the changes to student visas and the federal government’s singular focus on the highly politicised issue of asylum seekers as reasons behind the malaise.

“Australia has very quickly become known as an unwelcoming place,” Mr Paxton told Business News.

“My representatives in all parts of the world tell me they are not pushing visas in Australia because they get rejections.”

Mr Paxton said he had “run out of fingernails” trading through the last few years, during which time he has gone from running 23 classes in 2009 down to just 15 this year.

It’s not just the English language colleges that have suffered from this downturn in Chinese students; many of these schools operate pathway courses that lead into university study, so a fall in enrolments naturally leads to lower student numbers at the universities.

Edith Cowan University acting vice-chancellor John Finlay-Jones said ECU’s partnerships with Chinese universities protected it to some degree to the impact of domestic issues like the high Australian dollar or visa regulation changes.

“These arrangements allow Chinese students to complete part of their degree with their home university while learning English, then complete the degree here at ECU,” Professor Finlay-Jones said.

“It provides them with qualifications recognised both in China and Australia and can be significantly cheaper than studying a whole degree as an international student.”

The recent drop in the value of the Australian dollar has been a welcome development, according to Curtin University dean of international development Simon Ridings, especially for middle class Chinese families who have saved up the entire tuition fee for their child.

“When we have sudden or serious increases in the value of the dollar it’s very hard for them to come up with that money,” Professor Ridings said.

He said a softer dollar was a positive for recruitment because it made courses more affordable. However, the long lead times into many fields meant there wasn’t an immediate positive impact.

“It’s a positive thing for recruitment because it makes it a bit more affordable, but in reality it’s quite a long time before we see that impact in enrolments,” Professor Ridings said.

Like all the universities, Curtin has suffered the combined impact of the GFC, a high Australian dollar, and changes to the visa regime for international students, which sought to stamp out the use of certain vocational training courses as a backdoor pathway to a work visa.

Professor Ridings said such a confluence of factors made it difficult to quickly turn around the flow, even when these factors began to abate.

And he said it was too early to judge the effect of the new Post Study Work Rights, which allows graduates to work in Australia without finding a company to sponsor them.

Like ECU, Curtin has been protected from the falling Chinese enrolments by its partnerships with Chinese educational institutions.

These pathways have helped support student numbers, and Professor Ridings said it was important to note that the unprecedented growth in Chinese student numbers before 2009 was unlikely to be repeated any time soon.



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