Calls for international student numbers to be capped

AUSTRALIA’S $15 billion overseas student industry is being asked to consider caps on student numbers in the name of quality.

The idea was floated yesterday by an advisory council chaired by businessman Michael Chaney and charged with helping the federal government devise a new strategy for the industry.

Rapid growth in international students and fee income peaked in 2009 and some education sectors are now in steep decline because of the strong dollar, stricter migration rules, bad publicity from street crime and overseas competition.

Universities, especially those more dependent on overseas fee income, hope a new streamlined visa system will help them build their depleted student numbers from next year.

Falling international student numbers have prompted universities to embrace the removal of quotas on domestic students and enrolments have risen dramatically, particularly among low-scoring school leavers.
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The incoming head of the University of Queensland described as “perverse” a federal government policy that encourages universities to enrol low-scoring domestic students, but to not provide programs that prepare them for academic life.

Peter Hoj, who was yesterday named as the replacement vice-chancellor at Queensland’s sandstone university, told The Australian it would be preferable to reintroduce a “partial recapping of university places” than risk a lowering of standards.

“I have a clear view that rather than making university entry totally demand-driven, that it would be better to spend some more money on the academic preparation of students, even if that meant a partial recapping of places,” Professor Hoj said.

This year, the government took quotas off university places, allowing institutions to enrol as many students as qualified to increase to 40 per cent by 2025 the proportion of young people with a bachelors degree.

Professor Hoj, vice-chancellor at the University of South Australia, said UniSA College, which offered foundation programs similar to a Year 13 at school, had seen demand increase from 150 in the first year, to 700 first preferences for entry this year.

“I decided to start a college because I did not want people to go to our university if they were not prepared. Our system must invest in bridging the gap between ability and preparation.”

Professor Hoj said funding for foundation courses was “fixed”.

“The more students you take into your college, the less you get paid per student.”

A spokesman for Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans disputed the fixed funding.

“The government did not freeze the number of places available in these courses in 2012. The government negotiated with universities to ensure any expansion in the number of places available was consistent with the university’s strategic plan ,” he said.

“For 2012, the University of South Australia was provided a further 200 places at the sub-bachelor level for its diplomas of science and technology and arts, and to expand its load in foundation studies. These places were in addition to its existing 500 sub-bachelor places, bringing it to 700 places (40 per cent growth).”

In a discussion paper, Mr Chaney’s International Education Advisory Council asks whether it was “possible or desirable” to set a sustainable number of overseas students.

This “target” could apply at an institutional level, by state and or nationally.

In 2009, there were 631,935 fee-paying foreign students in Australia compared with 557,425 last year. Colleges offering English-language courses and vocational training have suffered the biggest declines.

Mr Chaney, NAB chairman and University of Western Australia chancellor, cited “the question of institutions’ dependence on offshore income and whether that creates a vulnerability”.

The 2008 Bradley report found seven universities relied on overseas fee income for 20 per cent or more of their revenue.

Phil Honeywood, from the International Education Association of Australia, said the industry already was “more regulated than any of its competitor nations (such as Canada or the US)”.

“If we start to set caps and limits on each institution, this could serve to constrain what has developed as a vibrant and dynamic industry for Australia.”

Category: Australian Visas
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