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Enrollment of Chinese students slowing at Australian universities

By Karl Wilson in Sydney | China Daily | Updated: 2019-03-15 08:09

Australian degrees are losing their appeal to students from the Chinese mainland, as evidenced by the slowing enrollment at universities, according to experts.

While the number of Chinese mainland students coming to study at Australian universities continues to grow, the rate of increase has slowed, a report in The Australian newspaper said on March 6.

The paper cited data from the Department of Education which showed the number of Chinese students commencing courses at Australian universities in 2018 was 8 percent higher than the previous year. But it was less than half the 17 percent growth rate recorded in both 2017 and 2016.

According to Nick Bisley, head of the school of humanities and social sciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne, there has been an increase in both the overall supply of higher education within China - new universities plus increased capacity in existing institutions - and in the quality of the degrees being provided.

"And that is right across the board from the most prestigious to more regional institutions," he said.

Bisley said the marginal benefit in the labor market of having a foreign degree, whether from Australia or anywhere else, is lower than it was - except for the very small number of students attending the top universities of the world.

"As Australian universities compete in the mass market segment, they are especially vulnerable to these shifting pressures," he said.

"Finally, lots of oversees institutions have (Chinese mainland-based) campuses or partnership deals that allow students within the (country) to be able to access brand and quality associated with an international institution without leaving or paying the kind of premium they've paid in the past."

Short-term fluctuation?

The need for students to go overseas therefore is no longer paramount. For many, a foreign degree is no longer seen as a passport to a better job back home.

Chinese students who had studied overseas were once widely called "sea turtles" on their return to China, but today they are often referred to as "seaweed" - something adrift and a little messy, according to Merriden Varrall, director of geopolitics and tax with KPMG Australia, an audit, tax and advisory services firm.

Varrall told a Universities Australia conference that overseas study "has become less desirable for Chinese students". The annual conference, organized by the International Education Association of Australia, was held from Feb 27 to March 1.

James Laurenceson, deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University Technology Sydney, said: "It's always hard to know if you are dealing with a trend or dealing with a short-term fluctuation when talking about student numbers."

"It is true that over the past six months or so there has been a softening of (in the number of) Chinese students coming to study at Australian universities," he said. "This could reflect a number of factors such as the political tensions between Beijing and Canberra and the value of a foreign degree."

Laurenceson said the decline in the growth rate of Chinese students comes off a "couple of years" of rapid expansion "where numbers were growing at around 17 percent annually".

Zhu Ying, director of the Australian Centre for Asian Business at the University of South Australia, noted that "the number of Chinese students coming to Australia has risen from a very, very low base and is flattening out."

"The numbers are still up but the percentage increase is slowing down," he said.

He said Chinese students can get their first degree from a foreign university in China, then go to that university overseas for a higher degree. "Foreign degrees are still valued, but they no longer open doors as they once did to better, high-paying jobs."

(China Daily 03/15/2019 page12)

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