There has been lots of discussion in the media around the rise of China and the potential threat it poses to Australian higher education – not least given that education in Australia is a big driver for the economy as the third-largest export earner.
But is there really cause for concern?
There is no doubt that China’s higher education sector is gaining strength.
Over the past five years, Chinese universities have started to rise up the world university rankings. They have done this while charging significantly lower tuition fees (around US$1,000 per year) compared with competing countries such as the UK (US$13,430), the US (US$9,139), Australia (US$4,770 to US$7,960 depending on the course) and Canada (US$4,534).
While Australia is one of the countries that spends the least on research and training – in 2013 just 0.441% of GDP was spent on research – China is investing heavily in research. China’s GDP spend on education increased from 3.93% in 2011 to 4.15% in 2014.
China is also upgrading its technical training system and programs. It recently announced a three-year action plan to promote technical and professional training.
Like most university sectors around the world, China is also planning to increase its number of international students in the drive to be globally recognised.
The government has introduced a 10-year plan to increase international student numbers from 265,090 in 2010 to 500,000 by 2020. It aims to increase degree and diploma students from 107,432 to 150,000 in that time.
Australian universities may well be concerned about the effect the rise in Chinese universities will have on the demand for Australian courses as Chinese students account for 30% of the Australian international student population.
A threat or opportunity?
On the surface this may be seen as a threat. But is there a different way to look at it?
Australia has five universities ranked in the top 100 universities in the world, according to the 2015 THE World Reputation Rankings. Mainland China has just two.
Australia accounts for 3.9% of the world’s research output with only 0.3% of the world’s population.
Its work and immigration opportunities are an extra incentive for students who are seeking assurances on quality, safety and affordability, along with the geographic proximity and similar time zones.
A big factor in student recruitment for universities is the support on offer for international students.
The attractiveness of international study is easily lost when students complain of communication problems, poor teaching facilities, lack of access to current technologies, and low levels of accommodation and student welfare assistance.
The global student is looking for a 21st-century education and lifestyle – and China’s restrictions on the use of social media, such as Facebook, and platforms, such as Google, are increasingly powerful disincentives for prospective international students.
How can Australia make the most of these changing times?
It is time for Australian universities to embrace these potential threats as challenges, and to provide a better, more inspiring university experience.
Despite China’s rise, it is still likely that Chinese students will want to study abroad. And China’s continuing economic growth will enable more Chinese families to send their children to study overseas.
Over the next decade many universities will face serious long-term decisions about how to stand out through their use of technology, blended learning and partnerships with industry and other tertiary providers.
The challenge for Australian universities will be how to distinguish themselves from other international universities.
To achieve this, a greater understanding of the international student experience is critical, such as through institutional partnerships, exchange programs and recruiting international staff.
A sheer focus on money could be detrimental for Australia’s long-term appeal to international students.
The Chinese government has taken a strategic perspective on internationalisation and regards international students as a strategic resource that will assist the country in its reform agenda as it continues to open up to the world.
Australian students are encouraged to study in China and participate in the many exchange programs.
Students from Australia currently account for around 1% of the international student population at Chinese universities. Encouraging a larger number of Australian students to study in China will lead to closer relationships and more interest in study opportunities in Australia.
Diversifying where we recruit international students from – for example, South America, Africa and the subcontinent – is also essential, especially for developing long-term diverse learning communities within Australian universities.
Australia has a huge opportunity to continue to grow its higher education reputation across the world and particularly in China.
We just need to increase investment and spend more wisely to keep the lead in our strong research areas – and also ensure excellent student support and mutual cultural awareness.