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International student numbers on the rise

Lucrative international students are a cash cow for universities, but our budget for reaching them has been shrunk. Michael Koziol reports.

There was a “modest” increase in international student numbers this semester. Credit: Newtown Graffiti, licensed under CC BY 2.0
There was a “modest” increase in international student numbers this semester.
Credit: Newtown Graffiti, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sydney University has experienced an upturn in international student enrolments for the first time since the onset of the global financial crisis. Figures known to the International Office reveal a “modest” increase in the number of overseas students starting their study here this semester when compared with the second semester of 2011.

The Deputy Director of the International Office, Jay Jayatilaka, said he was surprised to see a recovery this early given other Australian institutions are still experiencing a downturn in their numbers.

“We were not expecting a change in direction in terms of in

ternational student numbers until at least early next year,” Mr Jayatilaka said.

“We had to double check the numbers to make sure we were reading [them] correctly.”

Although the data has not yet been crunched, he expects the increase to come mainly from traditional markets such as China.

Sydney University takes on approximately 4000-5000 new international students each year, competing with UNSW for the lion’s share of those who come to the Sydney area. But the GFC and the high Australian dollar have combined to reduce numbers in recent years.

The university’s controversial Final Change Plan, which set out a number of cost saving measures including cuts to academic staff, named the “softening of international student demand” as a key reason for the shortfall in student fee income in 2011. This shortfall, combined with “urgent capital expenditure needs”, necessitated the loss of academic and administrative jobs, the university argued.

But the cuts also applied to the budget of the international office, and with it, the office’s overseas marketing program, which helps recruit those lucrative international students.

Mr Jayatilaka told Honi Soit it was reasonable for the marketing program to generate its share of budgetary savings.

“The cuts had to be absorbed across the board, and we were no exception,” he said.

“It’s a decision that’s made beyond this office. The university recognised a need to make cuts because of the budget situation…we were not unique in that.

“We just have to work within what’s available to us, and be a little smarter.

For the international office, those savings were chiefly made through a reduction in advertising spending, and by choosing to attend fewer expensive education exhibitions.

“We didn’t think, with our brand positioning, that it was always necessary to advertise,” Mr Jayatilaka said. “So we were able to get the message across without spending huge amounts of money in advertising. If you look at other universities you’ll see them advertising in train stations, on buses…we just didn’t go down that path.”

Big education exhibitions, where candidates peruse the offerings of numerous global institutions, can cost $8000 or more just to register. Mr Jayatilaka said the university could attain just as much benefit by showing up the week after the exhibition and not paying the fee.

“We get more focused candidates who actually missed us at the exhibition and are now thankful that we did show up,” he said.

“We don’t necessarily need to attend these exhibitions if we are still able to attract the quality candidate by other means.”

The strategy has been deployed in the Gulf and India, both particularly expensive markets in which to recruit.

But the effects of cuts to the marketing program may have not yet manifested. It takes around 12 to 18 months for most students to progress from inquiry into studying abroad to actually enrolling. The moderate upturn in enrollments this semester is likely a result ofe last year.

If next year’s numbers are down, there will be serious questions to answer about the cuts made to the marketing program. Mr Jayatilaka admitted they will have to wait and see. But he was optimistic that “we have managed to do well by being a little more strategic than we have been in the past”.

Twitter: @michaelkoziol