A recent warming of relations between Australia and both India and China helped to open up opportunities to recruit students to Australia and set up branch campuses, the Australian International Education Conference was told.
Chinese nationals make the majority of international students numbering over 150,000 enrolled at various Australian universities.
Gauging the potential of further growth in these two destinations, Sunny Yang, pro-vice-chancellor for global partnerships at the University of Newcastle, said that the defrosting of ties between Australia and China has helped so many students return and the recruitment process to gain momentum.
After a long spell of cold and tense bilateral ties, Chinese Minister of Education Huai Jinpeng paid a ministerial visit to Australia in August to meet his Australian counterpart Jason Clare, a number of other officials and the presidents of 15 Australian universities.
He visited the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney, and held roundtable discussions with Chinese students and scholars living in Australia.
“The two sides held in-depth talks and reached consensus on cooperation in student exchange, joint research, cooperative programmes and digital education, among other things,” said the Chinese foreign ministry back then.
In her observations, Yang said the unprecedented growth of domestic tertiary education venues in China has affected the ratio of Chinese students going abroad to places like Australia for studies.
“The market is showing some very different characteristics now. It’s all about rankings now. Ranking used to be a desire. Now it is an obsession,” she said, suggesting the Australian universities need to explore different avenues such as transnational education to attract middle-class students desiring to study at home.
In this context, the fact that a host of Australia’s leading universities dropped in standing at this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings is a cause for concern, with just one institution remaining in the top 50 and six in the top 100.
Dropping from 34 to 37, the University of Melbourne remained the highest ranked university in Australia on this chart. The worst decline in ranking was experienced by the University of Adelaide that fell 23 places to 111th place.
Dr Angela Lehmann, head of research at the Lygon Group in Australia, told the conference that since the COVID lockdowns, the Chinese students in particular have become very savvy about their choices of destinations for studies abroad.
“China has spent the past 10 to 15 years building up this sector in such a massive way and encouraging the young people to get a tertiary education and really educating thousands if not millions of young people that now we are in a situation where these young people are coming out of their universities with their degrees but no job to go into,” she said.
“And that’s what is defining the Chinese student experience right now. It’s also defining some new and emerging opportunities for Australia. So, for example, we are seeing young people deal with this situation in different ways. One of those ways is of course to try to apply for postgraduate studies,” she said.