Australian Universities must unite to attract the Indian students and challenge the wrong perceptions that Australian education lacks prestige, a report aimed at co-ordinating the push to reduce reliance on Chinese students has found.
But critics warn India will never be a strong alternative to China for Australia’s top universities because even though the country has the largest tertiary-age population in the world, it does not have the same level of wealth.
Top university officials joined Education Minister Dan Tehan on a visit to India this week to promote Australia’s offerings amid concern the sector is too financially dependent on Chinese students.
A government-commissioned report, published to coincide with the visit, found Australia was the second-most popular destination for Indian students after the United States, with almost 52,000 studying in the country in 2017.
The number of Indian students studying at Australian universities grew by 33% between 2017 and 2018 and has continued to grow this year, with 500 more visas issued in the September quarter compared with the same period last year.
Indian students are more motivated by visa schemes that allow them to work than Chinese students. But the UK recently relaxed its rules around working, which could result in increased competition for Australian Universities.
The report said Australia’s efforts to woo Indian students had also been ad-hoc, with institutions tending to pursue their own marketing.
“[This] may complicate attempts to pursue a larger ‘whole-of-country’ messaging and promotion of Australia’s brand strength of systemic quality,” the report said. Indians also perceived Australia’s education system as lacking gravitas, it said.
“Indian students pursuing higher degrees by research tend to choose the US or UK Universities that are seen as more prestigious,” it said.
But Andrew Norton, a professor in the practice of higher education at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, said better marketing would not prevent top universities from struggling to lure enough Indian students to reduce their reliance on China.
“China is a much wealthier nation than India and more able to afford the fees,” he said. “It’s completely rational to try to diversify, it’s just difficult given the sheer population numbers [of China] relative to other countries and the wealth.”
There has also been little research about the performance of Indian students, Professor Norton said. “Their English is on average better than the Chinese [students], but I have heard reports that their failure rates are higher,” he said.”That could be due to the lower quality of Indian universities, especially for postgraduate students, who may not be turning up as well prepared as they should be.”
There are already apprehensions about the consequences of a softening Chinese market on local universities. A recent letter to staff by Macquarie University vice-chancellor Bruce Dowton said his institution was beginning to feel the effects of the UK’s decision to relax working-visa rules as well as the Australian government’s incentives for students to attend regional universities.