words by Kathleen Donaghey
When Indian student Aishwarya Nair completed an undergraduate degree in her home country, she struggled to get the job she wanted at the Indian Foreign Ministry.
With millions of Indians now completing Bachelor degrees, the 24-year-old from Mumbai realised she would have to find a way to stand out from the crowd.
So she packed her bags and flew to Australia to undertake another two years’ postgraduate study, planning to return to India with “an edge” over other job applicants.
Postgraduate students like Aishwarya now account for the largest growth in international enrolments at Australian universities, with many of the top eight institutions boosting their postgraduate numbers significantly since 2010.
After completing undergraduate studies in their homelands, postgraduate students are embarking on the world to continue their tertiary education, fuelling a global boom in international students.
And Australia is high on their list of preferred destinations.
Latest figures from the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training reveal that Australia ranks third behind the USA and UK as the favoured destination of international students.
But while the USA continues to attract the greatest number of international students (with 26 per cent of the global cohort enrolled at tertiary levels in 2014), Australia punches above its weight with the highest number of international students per capita of anywhere in the world.
Australia had 502,544 international students enrolled across universities and other institutions in May this year – which was a significant 14% increase on May 2016.
Education is now Australia’s third largest export after iron ore and coal – contributing $22billion to the economy in 2016 – and is Australia’s largest export in the service industries.
With figures like these it makes sense to attract more international students, particularly when it’s predicted international study is expected to continue growing.
Last year, about five million tertiary students from around the world were studying abroad – a 67 per cent increase since 2005, according to International Consultants for Education and Fairs figures supplied to the federal government.
In the next ten years the number of international students studying around the world is expected to skyrocket to 8 million, largely because of the rising middle class in China and India.
Currently there are about 150,000 Chinese students studying in Australia and 50,000 Indian students.
“The economic situation in China is that middle class numbers are dramatically increasing and that enables families to send their children overseas,” says Guosheng Chen, Honorary Professor at RMIT University, and director of the Australian-Chinese Studies Forum.
“From China’s point of view the most popular destinations are still America and England, and Australia is the third preferred country because of our multicultural society and the safety.
“Also the universities at Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra rank very highly in the world so that is a good attraction to the Chinese students.”
Chinese students accounted for 22% of international postgraduates in Australia in 2014, according to Department of Education and Training figures, and the vast majority (90%) did not undertake any prior study in Australia.
The most popular field of enrolment in higher education among Chinese students in Australia in 2015 was Management and Commerce. Meanwhile China’s own Ministry of Education reports that, of the graduates returning to China with their new overseas qualifications, nearly one-third sought jobs in finance-related fields, followed by education (9.9), culture (7.8%) and software and IT services (6.7%).
Prof Chen says most Chinese international students come from families with business or government backgrounds and a greater proportion are now returning to the motherland once they have completed their overseas stint.
“If they get a foreign education they are better able to communicate with people from English-speaking backgrounds and bring back new skills to China and have increased employment,” she says.
“In the big cities, these skills are very valued by employers.”
AS the diaspora of international students continues to spread around the world, tertiary institutions like the University of Melbourne are leading the charge to attract more postgraduate students.
Between 2005 and 2015, the University of Melbourne experienced the largest increase in international students of any university in Australia – mostly in postgraduate enrolments.
Peter Derbyshire, national president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, explains that universities are now deliberately offering more postgraduate courses while cutting back on undergraduate degrees.
“I do know that universities like Uni Melb and UWA (University of Western Australia) have shifted their teaching model to provide a more broad undergraduate degree so that in order for students to get a more specific education in a chosen field they have to do a postgraduate degree,” he says.
Mr Derbyshire says most universities want to increase postgraduate international student enrolments because the domestic market is “tapped out”.
He says the fees paid by international students – which totalled $12billion in 2014-15 according to a Deloitte Access Economic report – is considered “free money” which universities can spend on whatever resources and infrastructure they choose, unlike specific research grants.
Postgraduate courses are also less regulated and have a higher fee-capping structure than undergraduate degrees.
“The cynic in me thinks (the increase in postgraduate courses) is an attempt to get more money out of students because they have to study more,” says Mr Derbyshire. “But students seem to enjoy them and, whether it’s good or bad, it’s too early to tell.”
A University of Melbourne spokesperson says its postgraduate-heavy curriculum is part of a “global trend” towards offering a broad undergraduate education which leads to specialised graduate coursework or research degrees.
“The number of postgraduate students and international students at the University of Melbourne have both grown strongly between 2012 and 2017,” the spokesperson says.
“The Melbourne Model was pivotal in the development of graduate schools, and has positioned the university as Australia’s number one.
“The University of Melbourne’s international student cohort represents more than 130 nationalities and their diverse backgrounds enrich the educational experience of all students.”
Attracting more international students, however, may not be as straightforward as offering more postgraduate courses.
Mr Derbyshire warns that the rise of China and India may be fuelling the global education market but it won’t be long before universities in those populous countries catch up to their Western counterparts.
“Australian universities are always going to try and get more international students,” he says. “But there will be a bit of a challenge when Chinese universities – which are growing at a very rapid rate – start finding their feet.
About the author
Journalist Kathleen Donaghey has more than a
decade’s experience in newspapers. She co-founded
and currently runs an independent news magazine