19/08/2010 - 00:00

Universities expecting a tough time next year

19/08/2010 - 00:00


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THE term ‘perfect storm is used to describe an event where a rare combination of circumstances combine to drastically aggravate a situation.

Universities expecting a tough time next year

THE term ‘perfect storm is used to describe an event where a rare combination of circumstances combine to drastically aggravate a situation.

The education sector is experiencing its own version of a perfect storm at the moment, due to an unexpected convergence of events – changes to student visa conditions and immigration laws, violence against Indian students in Melbourne, and the high Australian dollar.

And according to the heads of Western Australia’s universities, the combination of these factors is threatening the $1.1 billion international education industry in this state and is likely to affect the higher education sector in the years ahead.

Curtin University has the largest number of international students among the state’s tertiary institutions, turning over $140 million in fees and activities every year.

According to Curtin’s 2009 annual report, international student enrolments rose 8 per cent to almost 19,000 students.

But the university’s vice-chancellor, Jeanette Hacket, said the university was preparing for significant downward patterns of international enrolments in 2011.

“We know that there are very significant and damaging things happening in international education,” she said. “We would expect there would already be a negative impact next year.”

Professor Hacket said that, given the significant amount of revenue generated by international students, a drop in enrolments would have a significant impact on the university’s employment capacity.

“We are definitely anticipating softer demand and lower income,” she said.

The concerns about student safety following attacks on Indian students in Melbourne last year had already affected the number of Indian students at the university.

“There are 350 Indian students, but for new students we’re down by about 40 to 50 per cent,” Professor Hacket told WA Business News.

Murdoch University acting vice-chancellor Gary Martin said the university had not achieved the growth in international student numbers expected this year.

“We anticipated growth of around 10 per cent for this year,” he said.

“Final enrolments for our courses will not be complete until we commence trimester 3 later this year but we expect that growth on international students at Murdoch this year will be very small, possibly around two to three per cent over the same time last year.”

Compared with Curtin and Murdoch, the University of Western Australia has a relatively small international student population with 3,187 students studying onshore, according to its 2009 annual report.

UWA vice-chancellor Alan Robson, who is also the deputy chair of Universities Australia, expressed his concern at the current downturn in international student numbers outside the tertiary sector.

“The worrying sign in Australia at this time is enrolments in English language (courses) are down,” Professor Robson said.

“You can reasonably infer that may mean international student numbers will be down next year.”

He said there had been no reduction in international enrolments at UWA thus far.

However, the university’s Centre for English Language Teaching, which acts as a feeder for international students into UWA, has experienced a 4 per cent decline in students this year.

CELT director Bianca Panizza said the decline was perfectly viable but she was still concerned.

“You’re talking to someone who is cautious and pessimistic,” she said.

“I think we should be able to weather it, partly because we’re part of UWA and we’ve needed our aims to maintain the universities quality … but I am going to be relying on our reputation and continued marketing in recruitment.”

It’s a similar story at Edith Cowan University which, while increasing its on-shore international student enrollments in 2009 by 10.6 per cent, was also expecting a decline in international enrolments.

Deputy vice-chancellor Tony Watson said there appeared to be a general decline in the international onshore market.

According to the university’s 2009 annual report: “ECU attracted international students from more than 80 countries to study on-shore at its campuses. In 2009 some 20 per cent were from China and 17 per cent from India.”

Indian student numbers at the ECU fell in the second half of 2009 “following some concerns about Indian students’ safety,” the report said.

ECU anticipates that the Indian market is likely to decline and said in its annual report it: “Therefore adopted a prudent approach to setting 2010 targets for international students, with targets set to exceed only marginally the 2009 student load.”

Weathering the storm

But the state’s universities are not standing still on this issue. Each institution has moved strongly into offshore education of international students and is working to establish strategic partnerships so students from Australia’s Asian neighbours, particularly China, continue to choose to study in Perth.

In recent years, Curtin has steadily grown numbers at its campuses in Sarawak in Malaysia and in Singapore.

By last year the number of students enrolled at the Sarawak campus had grown to 2,095 from 1,543 in 2005.

Professor Hacket said Curtin’s overseas service provision was very important.

“We have taken over an extended period of time a risk management strategy that has been focused around diversification,” she said.

“This means we’ve tried to spread our student recruitment across a wide range of geographic markets and provide in-country education.”

ECU has developed relationships with a number of overseas universities in China, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Kenya.

Last year, the number of students studying at ECU at offshore campuses rose 14.9 per cent to 2,493.

“ECU is focusing on developing additional meaningful international university partnerships which include bi-directional student mobility, staff exchanges and joint research activities,” Professor Watson said.

Murdoch University has also been focusing on developing relationships outside of Perth and Professor Martin said the university was still well placed to increase its international student population in 2011.

“We have developed a very strong and collaborative approach with Chinese universities and have formed nearly 20 strategic alliances, which will see around 200 undergraduate and postgraduate students arrive at Murdoch in 2011,” he said.

Professor Martin also said there had been significant growth in the number of students at its offshore centres in Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai.

“Murdoch has experienced around 30 per cent growth compared to the same time last year, in the number of students commencing studies at its offshore centres,” he said.

“The key reason for that growth is that clearly the staying at home option was less expensive when the Australian dollar is so high.”




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