Chinese and Indian students have not been deterred by negative media coverage or reports of racist attacks, and are flocking to Australian universities in record numbers.
New statistics show amost 190,000 foreigners applied to study in Australia between July and December, an increase of 14.1 per cent on the same period in 2016, with Indian applicants surging by 32 per cent and Chinese applicants by 13 per cent. Nepal overtook Brazil as the third-largest source of applicants, rising by 46 per cent to nearly 12,000 prospective students.
More than 90 per cent of applicants were granted student visas, with 41,000 – a quarter of all student visas issued in the quarter – going to Chinese nationals. A further 20,000 were Indian nationals. The grant rate for Chinese applicants steadily declined over the course of 2017 from 98.3 per cent to 93.8 per cent.
In total, the number of student visas granted rose by 7 per cent.
International students pay huge fees to study in Australia and have become an enormous source of income for universities, particularly the Group of Eight, to the extent that education has become the country’s third-biggest export market.
Critics have raised concerns at the level of Chinese influence in Australian universities, with students sometimes objecting to course material covering China and its government. Such matters, as well as physical attacks on Chinese students, have received prominent coverage in local and overseas Chinese media. Last month Beijing issued a safety warning for Chinese students in Australia and provided phone numbers in case of emergency.
But the figures released this week by the Department of Home Affairs show Chinese interest in an Australian higher education has only continued to grow. The 12.9 per cent increase in applications from Chinese nationals was far higher in July-December 2017 than the same period in 2016 (6.7 per cent) and 2015 (5.6 per cent).
Over the past 10 years, Nepal has grown exponentially as a source of international students, initially spurred by the decade-long Maoist insurgency and subsequent word of mouth. Nepalese media have identified Sydney’s Victoria University and Western Sydney University as major destinations for Nepalese students, and Auburn has become Sydney’s hub for Nepalese-speakers.
However, the figures released by the government this week also show signs of a jobs squeeze for international students after graduation. The number of graduates moving straight into skilled work has crashed following the Turnbull government’s changes to the temporary 457 visa, which will be abolished and replaced this month.
Just 3000 graduates transitioned to a 457, a decline of 50 per cent on the same period in 2016, while the number who moved on to a 189 or 190 skilled visa also fell. Instead, there was a 30 per cent increase in students moving on to a 485 “temporary graduate” visa, which allows them to work in Australia but is not a guarantee of skilled labour. There was also an 11.5 per cent rise in the number of graduates who moved on to a tourist visa.
Er-Kai Wang, associate lecturer in migration at the Australian National University, said the 485 visa still offered a “window of opportunity” for permanent residency, but it was easier on the 457. “That was a pathway for a lot of people to get into permanent residency – which was probably one of the things that the government was a bit suspicious about,” she said.
Last year the Turnbull government slashed the number of occupations eligible for the 457 visa, which this month will be replaced by the similar but stricter temporary Skills Shortage visa.
Of those graduates who were on the increasingly-popular 485 temporary graduate visa, about 6000 transitioned to a skilled migrant visa – a decline of 13.7 per cent on the same period in 2016.
Despite the lure of an Australian job and pathway to permanent residency, Ms Wang noted a large number of foreign students who study in Australia “are wanting to study and then go home”.