Monday, July 28, 2008

Foreign students at capacity level

Australia's international education body has signalled a change of course in foreign student education with a new focus on maintaining the $12.5 billion industry rather than growing it.

The shift comes as universities indicate they have reached capacity in their foreign student intakes, and concern over "fragility" in the international education sector.

Universities rely on foreign student fees for an average of 15% of their overall funding.

Australian Education International (AEI), the international arm of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, will focus on broadening the range of countries from which international students come, encouraging diversity in the courses they study, enriching the links between Australian and overseas institutions, and getting the international student numbers right.

About 65% of foreign students come from Asia, with half of them studying management and commerce, mostly in Melbourne and Sydney.

AEI chief executive Fiona Buffinton told The Age: "Certainly, I would say that sustainability is the aim" rather than growth as in previous years.

She said the first phase of international higher education involved Commonwealth scholarships to international students as part of a foreign aid scheme.

The second phase was a "very commercial sort of view" for the past 20 years, which encouraged growth. "Now universities are certainly looking at what I think is the third phase, which is the sustainable model," she said.

She denied the commercial model for growth had been unsustainable. "We've got to keep evolving and improving on what is considered to be a good model," she said.

To draw students from a wider range of countries, AEI has opened offices in the Middle East and Latin America, part of a bid to protect the industry from regional economic downturns.

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