Mar 19, 2018

Are declining Chinese student numbers a casualty of diplomacy or just poor branding?

Data released by Austrade have shown that the number of visas issued to Chinese tertiary students has dropped for the first time in years, amid ongoing claims of interference by the Chinese government.

Michael Sainsbury — Freelance correspondent in Asia and <em>Little Red Blog</em> Editor

Michael Sainsbury

Freelance correspondent in Asia and Little Red Blog Editor

University of Technology Sydney, whose Dr. Chau Chak Wing building is pictured here, is bucking a trend of decreasing student enrollments from China.

For Australia’s tertiary education sector, after years of coasting on the back of ever increasing demand from Asia – most especially, China which now controls a whopping 30% of the $28 billion a year market – it seems that the time may be nigh for paying the piper.

After a string of controversies about Chinese government interference in Australia’s universities, the higher education sector is being hit by unprecedented second punch -- the first decline in Chinese student enrollments since Australia’s pioneering efforts in the international student market exploded two decades ago.

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22 thoughts on “Are declining Chinese student numbers a casualty of diplomacy or just poor branding?

  1. Toby Ralph

    2nd tier Universities have been handing out degrees like lollypops and raking in cash. When you flog a product and focus on volume at the expense of quality, its hardly surprising that perceived value drops over time.

    1. JMNO

      The use of ‘branding’ says it all

  2. kyle Hargraves

    I’m sorry to witness yet another piece of near-inept writing from Mr Sainsbury. As to his question “Are declining Chinese student numbers a casualty of diplomacy or just poor branding?” the answer is NEITHER.

    My recommendation to Mr Sainsbury is to spend a month in Asia (i.e. in countries) where moderate percentages of Asian students seek to study in western universities. Given a writer with any research skills at all an informative short essay could be constructed easily.

    Toby Ralph comes very close to the mark. The “re-badging of Institutes of Technology and Centres for Advanced Education into universities has not yielded long term benefits; quite the reverse in fact. While employers in Australia and NZ (the standard in NZ is a good deal higher) tend not to discriminate across universities the name of the university that one attends is a big deal in Asia; so much so that evidence of mere attendance can secure a position.

    As to the more “real-life” universities they, thanks to Dawkins (a Minister in the [Labor] Hawke government) and subsequent fashion, are in a position where they (i.e. real universities) are utterly dependent upon overseas students. They have “foundation years” for students that achieved under IELTS 5.5 or 6.0 but they also have an eye to
    having to shift these students onto a degree programme. Moreover, at the risk of generalisation, the content of a Masters programme contains little more (indeed if any more) than what existed in an undergraduate programme thirty or forty odd years ago (allowing for new knowledge).

    The universities are, it is apparent to anyone, VERY coy with the specifics of the content on their websites for courses; particularly post grad courses. Lastly, on the point, such is a world-wide phenomena; i.e. not confined to Australia.

    Now with that preliminary discharged Mr Sainsbury’s question can be addressed. Consider China for example; despite almost 70 years of a managed economy (the last 40 years possessing no comparison to the previous 30 years) the place is remarkably class-conscious. Schools, hospitals, shopping centres (malls) universities etc. receive a number. Often the number can be interpreted literally with one (1) being “best”. There are about a thousand (a bit less) universities in China but they are not all equivalent. The ‘first’ 100 are deemed quite good; the next 100 ‘so-so’ but it ‘declines’ in prestige and rigor from there. The entrance exam is regarded as a very big deal and it taken very seriously. To varying degrees the same is true of Asia generally.

    The “branding” of foreign (with respect to Asia) is very good. There is no issue with “diplomacy” either. Particular diplomatic events (by any particular country) are not correlated to applications by Asian students over any reasonable interval of time. As an aside Mr Sainsbury OUGHT to have been able to work that aspect out for himself. There is no Trump effect or Obama effect. Asian students are much too pragmatic to let such features detract from their career goals.

    Mr Sainsbury did get one thing right; to wit : “Finally, China’s own universities and high schools are increasingly offering better services to their own citizens, which cannot be underestimated in Xi Jinping’s increasingly nationalistic China.”

    The phrase “increasingly nationalistic China” deserves to be analysed elsewhere and it his not helpful in this context. However it most CERTAINLY is the case that the “top” 150-odd universites are receving a “shot the arm” from both domestic and international facullty staff to say nothing of equipment. Secondly, There is the Karl Marx Institute that is planned for Bejing in the near future; a President Xi initiative. China also expects to graduate 2 million (not a misprint) engineers by 2020(ish).

    The NUMBER ONE FACTOR that is having an effect on overseas (Asian) enrollments is that the large organisatons in China (and Asia generally) are either NOT paying a premium for an overseas qualification or paying about 1000(Y) [about A$200] per month extra for an overseas qualification. There is the further point, noted in the Chinese press, that a western degree is now “not really worth it”

    A decade ago any returning student with a good overseas qual (e.g. a BComm or a BSc) did not have to wait long for a job. Such is NO LONGER the case. Numerous graduates from western universities are returning to China and are competing with graduates from local universities. With this reality and the, now, extensive “pay back period” – an extra 1,000(Y) per month (at best) compared with hundreds of thousands of yuan/RMB (or possibly a million) to obtain an overseas degree – amounts to the principal explanation for the question put by Mr Sainsbury.

    As for a comparison an overseas student pays (about) US$1,000 per credit. It is three or four times that in Oz or NZ in nominal terms;the respective exchange rates do not mitigate the discrepancy. The better universities in Oz and NZ (are easy, by comparison to enter) so the Asian students are happy to pay a bit more. Canada has an attractive “immigration package” for foreign graduates of Canadian universities.

    The “top draw” in the UK (e.g. LSE, Imperial Collage, Kings Collage (London), Oxbridge for the name – along with Harvard and Yale) etc. will have queues for quite some time.

    For those that prefer an “executive summary”
    (i) Branding is NOT at fault
    (ii) Diplomatic matters “Trumpism or Obamaism” do not effect the pragmatism of Asian students
    (iii) There is a concerted effort for universities in Asia to surpsss those in the West
    (iv) Employers are less influenced by overseas (western) qualifications vis a vis local qualifications
    (v) In the case of Oz and NZ they have priced themselves out of the market.
    (vi) The pay-back period for a western degree has now got out of hand and is ceasing to be worth the trouble.
    (vii) There is no knock-on advantage (e.g. family immigration) after graduation in Oz/NZ.

    1. [email protected]

      In my mind the opportunity and economic cost is no longer tenible for Chinese parents making a decision. I predict a hard drop if things continue as they are (being China, things won’t).
      Australia has traditionally been a strong choice because of 1. job opportunity, and 2. Good schools in the United States having more difficult English requirements. And of course, 3. PR.
      Anecdotally, my Chinese friends who studied at UQ are on 3500 – 4500¥ p/month in Beijing and Shanghai, where a room costs around 1500. Some can’t find a job related to their degree.
      Additionally, the graduate programs for most workplaces are at an awkward time of year for Australian graduates, which is an issue in such a competitive marketplace.
      So the students in Australia are a mix of those who can’t get in to the US schools because of their English, and whose results couldn’t get them into a top Beijing uni, and are struggling to get work back home in a competitive environment that no longer values the Australian degree as much. Pretty bleak, huh. However, all I’ve met are here with a hope for PR and love the country.
      I think Sainsbury is overall correct that the worm is turning, particularly if Dutton fidles with PR, which I suspect he will after citizenship changes go through.

      1. kyle Hargraves

        “in Beijing and Shanghai, where a room costs around 1500[yuan].

        Beijing and Shanghai are big places with 20 odd million people; roughly the population of Oz. Depending where one is to the the CBD and and quality of the accommodation the more reasonable expectation is 6,000Y+ per month. One can pay 9,000 for something that is only “average” in Lizy Bay for example. Twenty five to 50kms out the prices decline. Four or five years ago the prices was half of what they are now.

        Until, about, five years ago firms would pay a premium for overseas quals compared to local quals; the premium was upwards of 50% on the local salary. NOW, that premium has largely disappeared (as conveyed above).

        > Some can’t find a job related to their degree.
        Just my point. – The payback period becomes infinite.

        “Additionally, the graduate programs for most workplaces are at an awkward time of year for Australian graduates, which is an issue in such a competitive marketplace.”

        Not sure what you mean Harry. If you mean that the academic year for the two hemispheres is “inconvenient” I’m inclined to disagree but be that as it may.

        “So the students in Australia are a mix of those who can’t get in to the US schools because of their English”

        There is a WIDE variation for universities in the USA; in point of fact ANY Chinese student can get into “a” USA university but not necessary one that someone else has ever heard of.

        “and whose results couldn’t get them into a top Beijing uni, and are struggling to get work back home in a competitive environment”

        “that no longer values the Australian degree as much.”
        Its not just Australian quals; its anywhere although universities in Oz don’t have the “popular” prestige as do those (and others) that I mentioned above. To this end Oz/NZ is second (or third) choice.

        “I think Sainsbury is overall correct that the worm is turning, particularly if Dutton fidles with PR,”

        Sainsbury, for the length, made only one or two useful statements. That “the worm is turning” is tautological (nothing new added) and is obvious by his singular observation concerning China offering improved services to their citizens.

        Overall, Harry, I think that we are in agreement. Frankly, I’m delighted with the situation although Oz OUGHT to be offering residency and then citizenship to “top” students.

        In five or six years (real) universities can occupy themselves with research with students being an afterthought and the re badged stuff can return to being a teaching/spoon-fed institution. Of course the majority of the $30b is going to disappear but anyone who has held a position in the Public Service (at L5+ or even below) for any length of time can attest to the waste. Having written that it is no better in large (e.g BHP/Billiton) organisations.

        1. [email protected]

          I think we’re mostly in agreement because I only have my anecdotes. Very recently I was living in Dongcheng district in Beijing. I’m talking about very basic, dirty shared accomodation, which is (again anecdotally) the kind of places graduates live. 1500 per month for a room.
          It’s not all bad. Personally I found that because everything else is 5 times cheaper the lifestyle in a tier 1 city is much more comfortable than Australia.

    2. covenanter

      The Colombo Plan, see the Asian context there?, a British Commonwealth educational initiative has proceeded so well that instead of Australian graduates going to Malaysia, for example fifty years ago, to teach under that Plan, Australian students now go to those same institutions. Not for the Asian vibe but because in all probability the education is better and must be in a country with the same population as Australia but with a more diverse economy which rewards the efforts of students.
      Australia only offers prestige, the mock Cambridge and Oxford in the antipodes plus the chance for fluency in language.
      But will overseas students from Australia go to mainland Chinese universities as per the Malaysian experience?
      Australia remains a country educationally divided, its quality therefore inevitably diluted. Try reading up on the nation’s foremost colonial proponent of education, The Rev John Dunmore Lang, who identified this problem where “Authorities” sought to restrict the education available to their “people” in order that they be more easily politically controlled. Lang coming from a very different “British” educational tradition deplored this opposition to Christ’s ( known in Islam as The Great Teacher) dictum on education. you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
      The key to the lock on your chains, Kyle, awaits you on Google?
      What haven’t you been taught, and why?

      1. kyle Hargraves

        “But will overseas students from Australia go to mainland Chinese universities as per the Malaysian experience?”

        Answer : it depends upon the objective. Take a bus in a Chinese City from A to B at about 8am. Should the bus pass a teaching hospital the passenger will observe any number of Caucasians in white coats crossing the street from one building to another. All that is required if fluency in Mandarin and a half-reasonable standard of matriculation. Caucasian students, not a few from Australia, are undertaking Dentistry and Medicine degrees in the PRC.

  3. Limited Through Mixed

    Many reasons: perceived (actual or otherwise) racism against Chinese, poor quality courses leading to zero employment prospects, collapse of the private training sector, language barriers… the list goes on. Essentially the 2nd and 3rd tier universities and TAFEs that believed that the Chinese student market was a license to print money are deluded.

  4. Rais

    Australia’s lack of interest in Indonesia is very short-sighted. Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world by population, a country with a rapidly growing middle class and a developing democracy and people who generally already like Australia and feel comfortable here, yet we largely ignore them. As business promoters our Government, business sector and education sector fail badly. Even our attitude to tourism from Indonesia is dysfunctional. Indonesians have to jump through hoops and spend a lot of money to apply (non refundable in case of rejection) for a tourist visa while Malaysians and Chinese can apply quickly on line as soon as they’ve bought their ticket.

    1. Gavin Moodie

      Australian universities have Tafe institutes are seeking to expand exchanges with Indonesia, but it is difficult. Indonesian Government approvals are had to get, finance for developing campuses in Indonesia is hard to get, and fees must remain modest.

  5. Bobby

    Foreign students from Asia undertaking university studies in Australia was never about the quality of the education and never will be. Its about getting a visa with a view to eventually migrating your entire family into a first world nation. The government has tightened up on those working visas amd family reunion migration and a reduction in numbers is the obvious and predictable result

  6. AR

    Wow, people get pissed off paying bigbuk$ for crap, wotta surprise.
    Here’s a suggestion, how about restricting “education” visas for quality courses with bona fide institutions?
    Diploma mills are nothing new nor is the debasing of standards, whether currency, art or culture.

  7. old greybearded one

    I suspect second rate effort from universities and overhyped standards of supposed results. Perhaps the bubble has popped?

  8. Norm

    Oz Unis Pty Ltd: Degrees for sale; intellectual rigour and achievement optional. Please apply at the Immigration counter.

    1. kyle Hargraves

      This invitation to treat cheers me up!

  9. kyle Hargraves

    The following comments by various contributors, in addition to what has been written, are entirely valid. However, turning to the “nitty-gritty” the issues of tertiary education affect domestic students too.

    > Wow, people get pissed off paying bigbuk$ for crap, wotta surprise.

    It is also a two-way street. Circa 2005 there was the pretense of observance in regard to comprehension in English. While the “average” requirement is now IELTS 5.5 or 6.0 a standard of 8.0 is required for a moderately sophisticated course (from anyone). Frequently, those that just fail (a tad under 5) are “ushered in” regardless and the standard has been slipping in that direction for some time. Solicit an opinion from anyone who currently teaches overseas (predominantly but not exclusively Asian) students.

    It has attained the stage where it is not uncommon for students, being aware of their deficiency
    in English are, to their surprise, admitted to a course in any event (see above). In other words : fault on both sides exists but the institutions ought to be responsible. The attrition, needless to say, is high in such circumstances.

    > I suspect second rate effort from universities and overhyped standards of supposed results

    indeed – a factor of some significance. Ditto from some (cough) schools/agencies in Asia fudging results (transcripts) in order to get their students admitted overseas and then walking away – i.e. changing the name of the (local) institution or shutting down and re-surfacing 10 – 50 kms elsewhere. The (so called) teachers at such places are native speakers (good for appearances) but prior to accepting the job they haven’t, as a rule, an hour of previous classroom experience. When the catchment is as big as Asia almost anything is possible.

    “Essentially the 2nd and 3rd tier universities and TAFEs that believed that the Chinese student market was a license to print money are deluded.”

    One could extend this observation to an analogy with the mining sector; senior politicians and many scribblers (who ought to have known better) circa March-May 2013 “foretold” that the price of $100/tonne for iron ore was here to stay (and acted accordingly).

    “Here’s a suggestion, how about restricting “education” visas for quality courses with bona fide institutions?”

    fair suggestion but : Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Secondly EVEN the upper layer of tertiary institutions in Oz/NZ and elsewhere typically have a compulsory eight week writing course for prospective post grad students. Circa 1970 one could NOT matriculate unless one could write. Marks WERE deducted for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure along with poor (non-professional) style; to say nothing of the questions to be addressed which were
    concerned with English or English Literature. One had to pass BOTH the requirements for content and presentation.

    My suggestion is to have a separate body (I know : cost, delays, inefficiency, possible cronyism etc.) that vets prospective students as to their alleged standard of English and ONE other subject of the student’s choice. A sub-body could vet domestic students. THEN the tertiary institutions select from those who passed through the process. The criteria would be open and detailed. In other words the matriculation process would be two-staged with the “vetting” part (two attempts only) occurring (anytime) in either yr11 or yr12. With any luck there might be a return to the standards of the 60s or early 70s. The proposal would also clean-out a fair few teachers, positions in the Dep. Ed. and faculty staff. Keep in mind that until 1936 (Oz, NZ, UK) high school was not a right and was secured only be examination.

    > Perhaps the bubble has popped?

    I don’t think there is any doubt. There are too many loose ends in the entire enterprise (from all perspectives). In any event those who pay the piper are having second thoughts in regard to the product because it is deemed, even in the best case, that the overseas product is no better than the local product. Those who desire an overseas qual will engage in the process just for the prestige of having been overseas. The TAFEs and the lower tier, except for para-professional courses (and the bar needs to be raised there) can expect to be gutted.

  10. federali

    i think the path to permanent residency issue is a big factor here. It is now a lot more difficult to go from a degree on a student visa to a working visa without work experience though there are ways round this

    1. kyle Hargraves

      It is certainly a factor but not a predominant factor (see above). One approach, in addition to a more disciplined vetting process, is to provide overseas graduates with a working visa on the basis of their transcript alone. If the graduate obtains employment within a year and holds the job for two years then an application for residency ought to be forthcoming over a total interval of four (or five) years. From this perspective the job market (de facto) provides the residence permit and the country benefits overall.

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