Chinese students comprise by far the largest contingent of international students studying in Australia. Annually, Chinese students make up around twenty-five percent of 600,000 international enrolments in Australian educational institutions and contribute up to A$5 billion to Australia’s economy. Australia is now the third most popular destination for Chinese studying abroad, after the US and the UK. Education — including university degrees, vocational education, English colleges and secondary schooling — is Australia’s fourth biggest export to China.
As an overseas (English-language) education became a priority for the burgeoning Chinese middle class — a stratum seeking better employment prospects, migration opportunities and alternatives to the intense competition to enter elite Chinese universities — Chinese enrolments at Australian tertiary institutions grew at double-digit rates in the 2000s. Full-fee Chinese students, who pay two-to-three times more than domestic students, became a vital source of revenue for the Australian education industry.
However, from 2009, Chinese student numbers began to slow and even fall due to a series of factors: high student fees; a strong Australian dollar; strict immigration policies; saturated Australian graduate markets; reputational damage from assaults on Chinese students in Australia; and, increasing competition from American and British rivals to recruit Chinese students.
This slowing of demand has reversed in recent years as Australia implemented a suite of reforms. The reforms include: granting post-study and during-study work rights to international students; attempts to improve the international student experience; concerted AusTrade promotion of Australian education in China; the deployment of specialist China-focused recruitment staff and resources by education providers; and, increasing acceptance of Chinese high-school exam scores for Australian admissions.
While full-fee paying Chinese international students cross-subsidise tuition for Australian students, the Australian media has reported that many in the education sector are concerned that the increasing importance of Chinese students to university revenues is ‘contributing to a decline in academic standards through the routine acceptance of students with inadequate English proficiency’. Most Australian universities pay education agents in China to recruit local students, but media investigations have revealed that many Chinese agents knowingly submit fraudulent student applications and bribe document verifiers in order to collect lucrative per-student recruitment commissions. Australian academics complain of over-crowded classrooms, Chinese students ‘functionally illiterate’ in English and intense pressure from administrators to pass Chinese students regardless of their academic abilities. Investigative reports have also uncovered significant markets for Australian businesses selling both assignment-cheating services and fake degrees targeted at Chinese-speaking international students.
There are far fewer Australians studying in China than vice versa — the highest estimates put the total number of Australians at just under 5000 per year — yet China is still the second most popular study-abroad country for Australian students. However, these students are mostly in short-term exchanges and language courses rather than degree-granting programs. Both sides of Australian politics have sought to encourage study in Asia. In late 2012, the Labor government launched the A$47.5 million AsiaBound program to provide grants for 10,000 Australian students to undertake exchanges in Asia. The Coalition responded in August 2013 with its New Colombo Plan (NCP), committing A$100 million over five years to dozens of scholarships and thousands of mobility grants each year for Australian students to study and intern in Asia. The NCP was launched in December 2013, piloted in Hong Kong in 2014 and extended to mainland China in 2015.
China is a major educational partner for Australia. There are over 1200 bilateral university-to-university partnerships, a number of major Chinese Studies centres in Australia, and over forty Australian Studies centres in China (mostly supported by the Australian government). There is also significant research cooperation between Australian and Chinese institutions, facilitated through high-level programs such as Australia–China Joint Research Centres and the Australia–China Science and Research Fund. China is Australia’s third-largest joint publications partner in academic journals, and Australia is China’s sixth-largest. In April 2015, Australia’s Group of Eight universities became the first university umbrella group to sign an agreement with the China Scholarship Council, to increase two-way mobility of students and academics.
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