By DAVID MYTON
There were smiles all round and optimism aplenty when senior government ministers and education leaders met in Canberra for the first meeting of the new Council for International Education late last year. The Brexit- and Trump-fuelled angst gripping highered types in the northern hemisphere seemed (and actually was) thousands of miles away.
The Council, chaired by Education Minister Simon Birmingham and comprising six government ministers and 11 expert members, convened to discuss “a wide range of international education issues” and to action Australia’s new National Strategy for International Education 2025 and the Australian International Education 2025 market development “roadmap”.
There are many reasons to be cheerful. The latest trade figures reveal Australia’s education export earnings stood at a record $21.8 billion in 2016 while income from education grew by 17 per cent on 2015 – the strongest annual growth since 2010.
The education of international students is Australia’s third largest export, behind only iron ore and coal.
Earlier this month Minister Birmingham had even more good news to share with the latest statistics showing a further 10 per cent growth in international student numbers and more than 90 per cent international student satisfaction.
Australia, he said, is the “destination of choice” for record numbers of students from more than 200 nations
In Austrade’s bullish view the sector can grow to 720,000 students by 2025 while its “high market-share scenario” sees the numbers doubling to nearly 990,000 by 2025, with the potential for 110 million students by 2025 if MOOCs and other technologies live up to promise.
International education is a child of globalisation, but the globalisation project now appears under threat and in the words of the French writer Paul Arbair we could be witnessing a “big, bold jump into the unknown”.
In the short term at least international education in the US and the UK is likely to take a hit.
Hans de Wit predicts that their already declining market share will further decrease over the next four to five years, with enrolments progressively declining “because of anti-immigration policies and the negative perceptions of many students and their families”.
Australia’s main international student competitors are the US and UK, (19 per cent and 10 per cent of the market respectively), followed by France, Germany, Japan and Canada, with China and India working hard to expand their international education offerings including by offering courses in English and online.
It seems that what is bad news for the northern hemisphere is good news for the southern.
A 2015 report by Deloitte Access Economics for Austrade projected that international student growth is expected to continue from China and India, with the Philippines and Thailand offering strong potential along with opportunities in Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
By far the biggest source region for Australia is Asia which currently supplies 76 per cent of students – 39 per cent from North East Asia, 19 per cent from Southern and Central Asia, and 18 per cent from South-East Asia.
Following the Trump election it was reported that a website designed to attract international students to Australia had seen “a huge spike” in hits with signs “pointing to a boost in international students from non-traditional countries”.
Chris Lester, chief executive of the Good Education Group, told The Australian he thought it was time for Australian university recruiters to “look beyond Asia and capitalise on Australia’s prime position as an alternative welcoming destination for students looking to study abroad”.
But this is not the view of Alex Frino, deputy vice-chancellor (international) at the University of Wollongong, who said a move to diversify away from China would be misguided and pointless “because the economic prosperity of most countries that send students to us are tied to China”, adding:
“If the Chinese economy tanks, and the number of students China sends us falls, so will the number of students from other countries. Diversification only makes sense if we source from countries whose economies are not related to China.”
And there we may just have a glimpse of the tiniest dark cloud on the horizon.
What if China’s economy tanks?
China’s economy reportedly grew by 6.7 per cent in 2016 but some commentators are saying the country’s growth was slower than that suggested by official data.
The AFR reports that China’s total debt load had reached 255 per cent of GDP by the end of June, up from 141 per cent in 2008 and well above the average of 188 per cent for emerging markets, which was more than a domestic concern:
“China contributed a third of global GDP growth in 2015. If its economy slows sharply, the effects would be felt worldwide”.
Many sectors would “feel the pain”.
And is China content to be a “sender” of international students rather than be a “receiver”?
Hans de Wit foresees an increase in intra-regional mobility: in Southeast Asia (in particular to China); in Central Asia (in particular to Russia); in Latin America, Africa, and in the Middle East.
“Asia will become an alternative to Europe and North America for students from other regions of the world.”
Further, as reported in The Pie News, the Chinese Government’s latest plan for international education is aimed at strengthening China’s image as an attractive study destination, boosting the quality of its international education offerings, and encouraging partnerships with foreign education institutions and enterprise.
All of this poses no immediate threat to Australian international education, and perhaps never will.
But today shock and surprise are the new normal.
Who is brave enough to bet the good times will continue to roll forever?