In September 2011 the Knight Review of Australian higher education recommended a suite of changes to help boost flagging interest in Australia as an education destination among Asian students. This year those changes are slowly coming into play. To find out the real effects of the Knight Review and the state of international education in Australia today, Asian Correspondent sat down with leading influencers at three of Australia’s top universities. These are the highlights of our discussion…

After several years of growth, Australia’s international application figures took a major dive after the 2008-2009 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In the space of one year, the number of international student applications dropped from 366,000 to less than 297,000. That’s approaching a 20 percent decrease in a single year. Expand the sample to include the following year, and applications dropped by more than 23 percent.

CQUniversity students

CQUniversity students.

The culprit  at least in part is an immigration crackdown that the government introduced in 2008. The government re-evaluated the immigration risk levels of individual countries, and students from certain countries found it much harder to secure student visas. A revision to India’s risk level was most significant among Asian nations, and Indian applications dropped by more than 50 percent for the 2009-2010 school year. China, South Korea and Malaysia –  all of which have a major presence in Australian universities much less dramatic decreases across the board, but applications from each of these countries have still declined since 2008.

Enter the Knight Review. The Australian government appointed Michael Knight to review the student visa program and draft recommendations on boosting its competitiveness. Mr. Knight came back with 41 suggestions in mid-2011, all of which were officially accepted a few months later in September. Changes will not go into effect until second semester 2012.

The handling of student visas is central to changes proposed by the Knight Review. Application fees have been reduced, along with the amount of cash students are required to deposit in an Australian bank before applying for a visa. Revisions also included plans for the introduction of a post-study work visa, so that students can gain experience in the Australian market before returning home; an expanded list of acceptable English proficiency tests; and a blanket  ‘low-risk’ consideration for all student visa applicants regardless of their country of origin. All good Australian universities have dedicated staff to deal with questions on visas.

To determine the early effects of the Knight Review, Asian Correspondent picked the brains’ of three of Australia’s leading academics: Tyrone Carlin, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education Operations) at the University of Sydney; Alastair Dawson, the Deputy Vice Chancellor (International and Services) at CQUniversity and CEO of CQUniversity’s subsidiary, C Management Services; and Saman Halgamuge, Assistant Dean (International) of Melbourne School of Engineering at the University of Melbourne.

To start, Professor Carlin commented on the international response to the Knight Review recommendations:

There are early signs of a modest recovery in international student enrolments, as a result of the Australian government implementing the recommendations from the Knight Review. The University [of Sydney] is hopeful that this favourable trend will continue once the post-study work right (PSW) eligibility is determined.

Professor Halgamuge had more to say about PSW eligibility:

[The] new post-study work visa that will allow graduates to work in Australia for a number of years after they have completed their studies. This, in particular,  would be attractive to international students, and we hope to see it implemented soon.

Professors Carlin and Halgamuge were both cautiously optimistic. Mr. Dawson, while acknowledging the potential long-term benefits of the Knight Review recommendations, had more to say about its failure to address immediate challenges at CQUniversity

[O]ne of the greatest concerns has been the lack of uniformity around implementation at [the] university level. Whilst some universities have responded quickly and quite decisively, the actions of those who acted quickly, especially in regard to the streamlined process for student visas, have resulted in some loss of student numbers, which were taken by other universities who might have had a less rigorous approach.

Of course the greater challenge facing all Australian Universities is the increased competition at a global level that we will face in the current market and only time will tell if the Knight review’s outcomes will have been really beneficial to international education in Australia.

Students at the University of Sydney

Pic: Students at the University of Sydney.

When asked what the most popular course of study was among Asia’s international applicants to the Australian university system, all three of our experts answered in a chorus of agreement business. They also agreed on the popularity in one form or another of engineering, which, as Professor Carlin pointed out, is particularly important to students from developing nations where substantial infrastructure is added each year. IT was also mentioned twice.

If a significant number of students from Asia are looking to earn an MBA or another business degree in Australia, then it seems reasonable to take bottom-line economics into account when analyzing students’ decision of where to apply. The Australian dollar made considerable gains between 2009 and 2012. It overtook the US dollar in 2011 and has, for the most part, maintained this advantage. It gained and held comparative gains against the British pound and the euro in the same time frame. These gains are presumably here to stay for the time being, which means studying (and perhaps more importantly, living) in Australia costs quite a bit more now than it did just three or four years ago.

While acknowledging the increased cost of living, all three professors indicated that a degree from Australia still offers competitive value for money.

Mr. Dawson:

One of the great values Australian universities offer to international students is a quality education which is largely consistent across the sector ¦ [Q]uality of education is something that we consistently have been able to deliver in international markets [and are] well recognized for.

Professor Halgamuge alluded to the fact that Australian universities can deliver international credentials for less than it would cost to earn those same credentials outside of the Asia-Pacific region:

Many [of the University of Melbourne's] degrees are accredited to global standards, offering global career opportunities. For example, the University of Melbourne offers a European accredited Master of Engineering, so Asian students who want to work in Germany – a world leader in engineering – can qualify to do so at an Australian university, closer to home and with a lower living cost than doing so in Europe.

Given its proximity to countries in the region experiencing significant population growth, Australia needs to be perceived as a destination offering value for money, and a favourable return on investment, not only in terms of education opportunities but in longer term career prospects as well.

He brings up another important consideration. Does a degree earned in the Asia-Pacific region offer more competitive career prospects in Asia?

Professor Halgamuge:

Our engineering graduates, international and domestic, are sought by the major international
employers and enjoy careers in the US, China, the UK and Middle East and every other part of the world.

Professor Carlin and Mr. Dawson also pointed to changes under the Knight Review that make it easier for students to stay in Australia and work for a few years after they graduate.

Professor Carlin:

The University of Sydney has extensive links with business and industry, and through its Careers Office, has the capacity to counsel students regarding
potential employment opportunities ¦ It is possible therefore, for a fresh graduate to commence work in Australia, but be placed overseas after a period of time. This provides a significant competitive advantage for these candidates when they return to their respective home countries.

Mr. Dawson pointed out that the Australian is increasingly looking to universities to ensure that students return home after completing their studies. However, he also affirmed that:

The richer experience [of living and working overseas] provides students with something they can, in turn, share with their communities when they return home, along with the contacts they make globally, which can only be gained by the study abroad option.

In global terms, Australia may be in the neighborhood for Asian students, but it by no means has an international monopoly on international credentials and
networking opportunities. With that in mind, we asked our panel of experts what else the country had to offer students from overseas. Cultural diversity was a resounding theme across all of their answers.

Professor Carlin may have summed it up best:

[Australia's] cosmopolitan and multi-cultural mix leads to a greater understanding and tolerance of value systems, beliefs, customs and expectations beyond one’s own. It enhances the student experience which can only benefit international students when they step out as global citizens in to the wider community.

Twice during the interview, Mr. Dawson also made a point of mentioning the Australian landscape as an attractive feature. The second quote was specifically in
response to the aforementioned question:

Australia’s more casual lifestyle, great landscapes and diversity, make us a compelling choice of destination for international students.

The rich diversity of our landscapes [and] blends of culture from all over the world [make] our country and ideal choice for students wishing [to receive] an international education ¦ and [are] ideal for building lasting relationships which will serve them well throughout life.

As Professor Halgamuge pointed out early in the interview, it’s still early times’ in terms of gauging the overall effect of the Knight Review on Australia’s international application figures. But the next year or two should be telling in terms of determining exactly what it is that students from across Asia are looking for in an international education. In any event, there is no question that Australia remains the closest educational where students in Asia can earn what is, essentially, a Western degree with strong international accreditation.

We’ll have Professor Halgamuge take us out with a final thought on Australia’s role in an increasingly international and interconnected workplace:

in terms of gauging the overall effect of the Knight Review on Australia’s international application figures. But the next year or two should be telling in terms of determining exactly what it is that students from across Asia are looking for in an international education. In any event, there is no question that Australia remains the closest educational where students in Asia can earn what is, essentially, a Western degree with strong international accreditation.

We’ll have Professor Halgamuge take us out with a final thought on Australia’s role in an increasingly international and interconnected workplace:

[Studying in Australia] gives students a preview of their professional future, as careers become increasingly international and mobile ¦ Our student community is now home to many who will become leaders in their fields. [Studying in Australia]is a valuable opportunity to create professional networks that reach into every corner of the world. Australia’s position here on the edge of Asia and high engagement with the region at every level only makes this more powerful for Asian graduates from Australian universities.