Universities turn to India after projected decrease in Chinese student money

Australian universities are vying to attract students from India as experts warn of a decline in the enrolment of Chinese international students

Sydney University is commencing a turn to India for new international students, as a report today warns that Australian universities will no longer be able to solely rely on revenue from Chinese students.

The report, released by LEK Consulting, warns Australian universities that growth in Chinese students will soon fall from current rates of 10-15 per cent per annum to near 5 per cent per annum and that they must find other locales from which to recruit an international student base.

The 2017 New South Wales Auditor-General’s report earlier this year found that Chinese international students are a key source of revenue for most Australian universities, comprising more than 40 per cent of all foreign students studying in Australia, and notably making up more than 70 per cent of the international student population at the University of Sydney (USyd) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

“There are a number of factors affecting Chinese demand for education, including demographics, economics, and the maturation of the domestic education market,” says Anip Sharma, a co-author of the report.

The report encourages recruitment strategies to target Indian students, who are currently the second largest demographic group amongst Australian international students, at 11 per cent of the 713,000 international students in Australia.

“Indian student demand for foreign education has been growing by 15-20% year on year, faster than any other outbound population internationally, and roughly three times the global growth rate for China. Indian student numbers have also grown more strongly in Australia than in any other market.”

The University of Sydney has been preparing for a mass shift to recruiting Indian students for at least the past year. The Group of 8, of which USyd is a member, last year commissioned a task force and report into how to increase student mobility between the two countries.

Currently, Indian students make up fewer than 3 per cent of USyd’s international student body. But there are plans to diversify, with the SMH reporting USyd’s intention to double the Indian cohort in the next three years through a mix of social media marketing and greater investment in India-specific scholarships “to support talented Indian students.” It is unknown at this stage the value of these scholarships or their selection criteria.

USyd has also committed to expanding the number of staff dedicated to recruiting and managing students from India. Since 2016, the University has had one staff member based in New Delhi, but now plans to increase this number to a team of six in the next 18 months. This is more than double the number of staff in other student recruitment departments, where one or two people are allocated to manage entire regions.

Despite the latest interest in India, the region’s perception as a “risky market” has meant universities have paid close attention, conducting background checks on prospective students. A University spokesperson confirmed that checks are conducted internally by an admission and compliance team, who verify “academic and English language proficiency documents and […] English Language Testing System (IELTS) scorecards”. Additionally, the team uses a “Genuine Temporary Entrant (GTE) Assessment as an integrity measure to ensure the student visa program is used as intended”.

The GTE permits educational institutions to take into account any “relevant matter” when assessing the validity of an application; in practice, this has meant significant powers of discretion are handed over to the admissions team. In 2017, an Australian TAFE placed an alleged blanket-ban on admissions of students with Year 12 qualifications from the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, on the basis that these qualifications were not considered equivalent to ones received in Australia.   

While USyd has been relatively silent about its recruitment strategies, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has more public and ambitious targets for sourcing tudents from India.

Last month, UNSW unveiled the 2025 Strategy to facilitate internationalism and innovation on campuses. The Strategy confirmed plans to increase UNSW’s 12,000-strong Indian international student contingent to 40,000 by 2025. This comes just months after the university opened its first ‘UNSW India Centre’ in New Delhi, with the aim of strengthening student recruitment initiatives in the region.

But even as universities prepare to intake students from India to replace Chinese student revenue,  experts warn the handover is not so simple.

“As they have fundamentally different characteristics to Chinese students, universities will need to create new offerings to appeal to this cohort,” says Sharma.

The report recommends that Australia’s “second tier” universities are best-placed to adapt to the rising demand. “These institutions are highly ambitious and innovation-­focused, without having premium brand positioning to protect”.

This approach mirrors that currently taken by the federal government and university sector—in June a delegation of 120 education professionals, including ten Vice-Chancellors, accompanied former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former Education Minister Simon Birmingham to India. The trip resulted in an  agreement between Western Sydney University and India’s Centurion University, a joint PhD agreement between Curtin University and the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, and a Memorandum of Understanding between Deakin University and the Central University of Jammu.