Australia's international education sector is on a high – enrolments are increasing exponentially, and the country’s top institutions of higher learning are reaping huge profits.
Department of Education statistics showed there were 565,975 international students enrolled at universities, colleges, English language course and schools in Australia at the end of June, an 11 per cent increase on the same time last year.
Chinese nationals made up the bulk of that increase, with students from the People’s Republic rising by 31 per cent over the same period.
The growth has resulted in education becoming Australia’s third-largest export industry, providing an economic impact of $33.2 billion in 2017, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
But while most institutions of are celebrating a record-breaking run of enrolments, the mood could not be less jovial in the state once considered to be the pioneer of Australian international education – Western Australia.
Data from WA’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry showed that in the first three months of 2018, international student commencements declined by 13 per cent, compared with the same period in 2016.
“At the moment it couldn’t be worse,” Phoenix Academy principal Robynne Walsh told Australia China Business Review.
“Western Australia is bleeding and even a massive tourniquet wouldn’t help it.
“We think we’ve hit rock bottom, but I don’t think we have.
“It’s flatlined for us, in terms of the full-fee, independent student visa. That has really flattened.”
Mrs Walsh has been working in international education for nearly three decades, establishing Phoenix Academy in 1989 with her husband, Brian Walsh, at the Leederville campus of Perth Finishing College, which closed its doors the previous year.
Since then, Phoenix has grown to become a multi-faceted training organisation offering pathway courses to WA’s top universities alongside English-language classes and corporate training.
“If we were a business that just relied on the independent student visa system we would be in desperate straits,” Mrs Walsh said.
“But because we have so much diversified activity and we have the projects and tender opportunities, we will be fine. This has just forced us to be more creative.
“Phoenix has been around a long time, we own all of our real estate and we don’t have any equity from any other party, so we are well set up to weather the storm, but nobody really can see the light.
“Rod Jones hasn’t been able to make a difference with the new Study Perth, we haven’t been able to engage the (WA) premier to sit down and say: ‘This is really quite serious’.
“There is an industry that’s been neglected, and it’s lost.”
Mrs Walsh said one of the biggest challenges for WA institutions was that there was no real incentive for students to enrol in the state.
International students, Mrs Walsh said, preferred to enrol at institutions in emerging education destinations such as South Australia and Tasmania, states which offered pathways to permanent residency for occupations that were in high demand.
“Every single state has a system where if you tell me you have done an undergraduate or postgraduate degree they receive recognition or permanent residency points,” she said.
“Every state has something, except Western Australia.
“We give nothing, not one point, so that’s one of the big challenges. WA is seen to be a closed state.
“Even though the research shows that 70 to 80 per cent of students don’t intend to stay, it’s the image and it’s the perception that we are closed for business and they are not welcome.”
WA Premier Mark McGowan announced in August that a new occupation list would be introduced to offer graduates a pathway to permanent residency, a move to bring the state more in line with the rest of Australia which was welcomed broadly by the education sector.
Against that backdrop, initiatives continue to flow out of WA’s private sector, which is stepping up to reverse the declining enrolment numbers.
One of Phoenix’s newest initiatives was the establishment of a joint venture college in China, at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Under the joint venture, students will study for a year in China, then six months in Perth before enrolling in WA universities’ second-year programs.
The college was officially opened by Mr McGowan and Education Minister Sue Ellery as part of their delegation to China in November last year.
Mrs Walsh said there was also considerable opportunity for growth in junior education and teacher training.
“The Chinese are really fascinated about the inquiry method of learning,” she said.
“The Chinese method of education is very much memorisation and rote learning, where the children are passive.
“We call that teacher-centred, the teacher is the guru, stands out the front and the children memorise and are tested on it.
“What we have taught them is we have what we call the student-centred way, where the teacher encourages the students how to teach themselves.
“We teach students how to learn and then they will do the work for themselves. We don’t tell the answers, we teach them how to find the answers themselves.
“It’s like flipping the whole concept of education around, so they are fascinated.”
Another fresh initiative to boost WA’s international enrolments was recently unveiled by AIMS Immigration and Relocation Specialists, which has entered a partnership with the China Australia Business College of Shaanxi (CABCS).
Under a memorandum of understanding signed last month, AIMS and CABCS plan to bring between 600 and 1,000 Chinese students to Australian universities each year.
AIMS WA managing director Nicholas Tay told Australia China Business Review the initial focus would be on funnelling students into WA universities.
However, the opportunity would also be provided to study at Australia’s top institutions, including Monash University, University of Technology Sydney, University of Queensland and Australian National University.
Formal discussions with each of Australia’s top 10 universities were continuing, Mr Tay said.
However, he said that without increased government support, attracting the best and brightest students to WA would remain a significant challenge.
““The private sector is pushing WA, but the government has to put WA on the world map, on the global stage,” Mr Tay told Australia China Business Review.
“What I understand is that the government is spending around $2 million on advertising our universities in WA, but you will be amazed that in Melbourne that they are spending $20 million.
“We need to do something about that, to promote WA education and to promote WA tourism. WA tourism is not advertising the state to the Chinese market especially.
“If we have both the government and private industry pushing WA, there will be significant benefits to the local economy.”
Mr Tay said alongside the state government’s proposed visa changes, a wave of purpose-built student accommodation projects in the Perth CBD would be a significant boost for the industry.
“Being in the CBD, it is more accessible, they can travel north or south (to university campuses), so it is definitely very beneficial if we have student accommodation in the city,” Mr Tay said.
“In every parent’s mind, they want their kids to attend good schools.
“That’s not just pertaining to China, but everywhere else as well.
“One of the assurances we can give to parents is that we are here to chaperone their kids in a sense.
“We are not just putting them in schools, we are implementing a system that will help the family back home in China to monitor their performance, their livelihood and their results.
“That gives a certain benefit for the parents. We can sort out their accommodation, help to facilitate their landing easily, and more comfortably.
“Hopefully this will be a stepping stone for more students to come.”