For decades, Bob Birrell was the professor prepared to cry wolf on the international student sector.
A sociologist, Birrell made his career by tracking, from a somewhat coloured perspective, what he saw as the perils to Australian society by the influx of international students.
The thing about Birrell, who proudly wears the badge of liberal nationalist, is that for all that the analysis couched in an anti-immigration agenda, sometimes he was spectacularly right. It was Birrell who, back in 2007, clearly demonstrated a link between a massive hike in international students in vocational courses and permanent residency. The students, mainly Indians, had found a quicker and cheaper route to PR than a full university degree. That, in turn, lead to an upsurge in rogue colleges and college bankruptcies.
Despite his official retirement, Birrell and friends set up shop in Middle Camberwell in Melbourne, establishing the Australian Population Research Institute, which gave him a platform to continue banging on about international students and what he sees as the damage they inflict on our society.
He’s at it again, releasing a paper last week that argues that despite the extraordinary success of the sector in recent years “the industry is in a precarious state”.
“The overseas student industry has been put on a pedestal and its continued growth given high government priority,” he writes. “The reality is that the industry is too big, with too many downsides. At present, the tail is wagging the dog. Such is the the importance attached to the industry’s progress that the Australian government is privileging its aspiration for continued expansion. The downsides of growth have largely been ignored.”
While there are many salient points to Birrell’s newest paper particularly about over-reliance on single markets for some sectors – Chinese for the Group of Eight and Indians for everyone else – there is little actual evidence to back his claims, including poor quality of teaching and learning.
As Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Go8 points out, “if an Australian education was perceived as low quality, international students would have stopped coming here a long time ago”.
Pressure to deliver
Which leads me to another report. There is increasing pressure on universities to ensure that graduates are employed and employable; that they justify the public investment in them by becoming productive members of the workforce and contribute to the broader social good.
In a recent Letter from Australia, I wrote about graduate outcomes three years after completion. A recent report had found the outlook for Australian graduates very rosy with high levels of employment and salary growth.
But, what about international students, who make up more than 25 per cent of the student cohort and are the majority of students in a number of business-related postgraduate courses? Do universities have an obligation – moral or otherwise – to do what they can to ensure gainful employment and an upwardly mobile career after completing an Australian (or English, or Canadian or US) degree?
In the dark
Globally, the sector is valued at hundreds of billions of dollars as five million students traverse the globe to undertake study in another country. In Australia alone the sector is valued at $34 billion a year. But there is little appetite among those in the sector to publish data on the outcomes of graduates once they return home.
As Thomson said, students will only keep coming if they feel they are getting a good quality education which delivers in terms of career outcomes.
As long a students feel they are not just getting value for money but a generous return on investment they will continue to enrol in Australian (and UK, US, Canadian, New Zealand and European) universities. With middle-class families stumping up well in excess of $200,000 for their child to attain an overseas degree the expectation is that investment will be richly rewarded in terms of income and social mobility.
But there have been signs that the graduate employment market for some returned graduates in some source countries might be contracting. This is due to a number of factors, including increasing inflows of internationally educated graduates and improvements in higher education provision at home.
The international advantage?
As the China Daily recently explained, international graduates were once feted by the business community on their return home. But no longer.
“A record 666,000 overseas students are forecast this year to return home, where they will need to compete with 7.95 million fresh graduates from Chinese universities,” the article said.
It notes that, on average, returning students earn only about 500 yuan ($76) more a month than their peers who study at home.
Indeed, the worsening job prospects for Chinese international graduates is such that “the once affectionate moniker for Chinese students returning home, ‘sea turtles’ has changed to ‘seaweed’,” according to a story in Fairfax Media last year.
With the seemingly unstoppable growth of the sector, there is much to be lost should the return on investment not be as significant as students and their families would wish.
Especially when they are spending upwards of $100,000 for fees, with living costs on top of that. Sydney, it should not be forgotten, is up there with Tokyo, New York and London in terms of expensive cities to live.
What do we know?
One survey, conducted by the International Alumni Job Network casts light on the the current state of returns for international graduates – and the news is pretty good.
As I wrote in an article in The Conversation last week, while a half of all returnees earned less than US$1,000 per month in their first job, one third reported earning more than US$4000 per month.
Of course, the numbers are broad given the vast differences in earnings between different Asian countries.
For example, locally educated graduates Hong Kong earn around US$1966 per month, while graduates returning from overseas universities earn, on average, US$2482 per month. Indonesian graduates earn US$343pm, while internationally educated graduates earn US$1364 and for Vietnam the figures are US$175 and $1212.
This is good news for the international student markets in a range of English speaking countries as it seems to counter anecdotal evidence locally that graduates might be finding it hard to get a foot on the career ladder once they return home.
In the meantime, for all the doomsday prophecies of Bob Birrell and his ilk, the sky is not yet about to fall in.