Australia’s international student market has been dented by British schools and universities establishing outposts in Asia and the Middle East. And now the US and China have joined the throng. Countries have always looked to Australia as a success story in attracting international students.Many of those countries are opening up their universities to overseas students, making the international market a global business. Nevertheless, Australia can still attract students. The latest Austrade figures show that between September 2013 and September 2014, international students who began higher education courses increased by 14.7 per cent. China accounted for 37.3 per cent of those enrolments and India, 10 per cent. Students starting postgraduate research rose 9.2 per cent and postgraduate coursework students, 18.9 per cent.
But for how much longer can Australia remain a strong force in the international student market?
Third Degree recently sat down with Stephen Holmes, from The Knowledge Partnership, an education marketing, communications and research consultancy, to get a handle on the challenges ahead for Australian universities. He was in Australia visiting universities.
Dr Holmes, who lives in Asia, works with schools and universities such as the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University. Universities Australia is also a client.
He says the challenges to attract international students “may not manifest themselves yet, but they are coming”.
The growth of international schools in Asia and the Middle East and their implications for Australian universities is one challenge.
“What we’re seeing is a massive number of international schools, about 11,000 in the world,” says Dr Holmes, who recently spoke at an international schools conference.
“By 2020, it’s estimated that there could be 20,000.”
In Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the schools are effectively a brand builder for the country that sets them up.
“I’m a bit concerned that if a student goes to a British school, does a British curriculum, has a British school experience, it’s going to be a hard sell to get them to come to an Australian university,” Dr Holmes says.
Some British independent schools have been franchised and have opened up in Asia and the Middle East.
A British independent school, Cranleigh, which was established in Surrey in 1865, opened the Cranleigh Abu Dhabi campus in September. It’s built over seven hectares and will become the biggest campus in Abu Dhabi. There’s room for more than 1600 students from the ages of three to 18.
Wiltshire-based Marlborough College opened a Malaysian campus in 2012. The campus is in Iskandar, close to Singapore. Nearby, there is a university campus shared by eight international universities, including three from Britain.
The schools, Dr Holmes says, are not just catering for the expats, but for wealthy locals.
The Malaysian government recently changed the school quota for local students attending international schools. The government now allows 35 per cent to 50 per cent of the school population to be Malay. There are 100 international schools in Kuala Lumpur.
Dr Holmes views this development as “an alarm bell that went under the radar” for Australian universities trying to entice students to Australia.
There are a couple of Australian international schools in Asian countries.
However, the Northern Territory government wants to set up an international school in Darwin. The government hopes to partner with a major corporation or private education provider in Asia.
The other challenge for Australian universities is the battle for visibility in the Asian region. British universities have many offshore campuses in Asia, while Australia has few. This is largely because Britain has five times more universities than Australia.
American universities are setting up campuses in Asia and a Chinese university is establishing itself in Malaysia next year.
“Our brand is being swamped,” Dr Holmes says.
He says Britain has an advantage in the British Council, which works in 100 countries co-ordinating international educational opportunities for people in Britain and other countries.
But Dr Holmes says Australian universities also have their role to play in maintaining and improving their recognition in countries overseas.
He says the best way universities – that are not considered “elite institutions” – can stand out is to highlight three or four of their champion courses.
“You get haloed from that,” Dr Holmes says.
He says Australia is competing for international students with countries that have “very deep pockets”.
“We won’t be able to stand still,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with our universities; they’re very good, but it’s going to take real focus to maintain not just in quantity, but also in quality.”
Dr Holmes is considered an expert in his field but says he is still learning and that’s why he lives in Asia.
“I’m a student because I think that there are so many things going on simultaneously that it’s a day-to-day challenge to see how it’s all going to play out.”