Friday, February 6, 2009

Enrolments on the rise to buck the trend

AUSTRALIA'S $13 billion export education industry has defied predictions of a sharp slump in demand to register a 10-15 per cent spike in applications this year.

Some universities are even predicting a boom year ahead as the world slips further into recession.

The latest 2009 enrolment figures, compiled by a group of university directors of international education and obtained by the HES, suggest that the global economic crisis will trigger a flight to higher education.

Information shared by 20 international directors comparing the number of places accepted by international students in the last week of January with the corresponding number last year reveals a rise in student numbers.

Three universities are reporting static commencements compared with last year, and one a slight decline. But 16 universities report increases of between 10 per cent and 15 per cent, while some are seeing much larger rises.

Growth in postgraduate coursework is understood to be running at about 10 per cent, while research intensive universities are reporting double digit growth in new international research students.

Two factors, however, caution against over-reliance on the information gathered by international directors. First, a number of universities declined to share enrolment figures with the group. Second, international students appear to be taking advantage of the downturn in the value of the dollar by paying the first instalment of their fees earlier.

Despite these caveats the international director of a big metropolitan university, who declined to be named, told the HES: "The magnitude of the increase at this point is a clear indicator that the growth in international enrolments in the higher education sector in Australia is not slowing. We may well be looking at a continuation of the same strong level of growth that the sector experienced in 2008."

He added that education in Asia was an essential expenditure not unlike a household staple, and a high proportion of families would continue to make sacrifices to give their children a university degree from an English-speaking country.

The university sector's bullish predictions come in the week that Navitas, the global education services provider, announced a record interim profit for the half year ended December 31, 2008, on the back of strong revenue increases across all group operations.

Net profit after tax increased by 15 per cent to $19 million, underpinned by a 34 per cent rise in total group revenue to $217.4million.

The University of Melbourne is one of several institutions anticipating a record number of international student enrolments in 2009. Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis told the HES that while it would be another month before reliable international figures emerge, enrolments at this stage appeared strong across the country, as students paid their fees and secured accommodation.

"Talking with colleagues in other large public universities it seems that deferments are down as you might expect in a recession," he said.

"So far this is consistent with the Asian crisis of 1997. In that year, to everyone's surprise and relief, numbers did not fall sharply. However, there were some variegated responses, as the rise of Chinese enrolments masked some significant falls from other Asian countries. In particular, Indonesian enrolments fell sharply and have yet to recover."

Jeffrey Smart, Pro Vice-Chancellor (International & Recruitment) at Swinburne University of Technology, said his university was experiencing strong growth in international acceptances for semester 1 2009 across all program levels: English language, TAFE and higher education.

"We are seeing increases from the majority of our source markets," Professor Smart said.

The University of South Australia's director international, Rob Greig, said the outlook for international student enrolments was encouraging.

"We will know more when Australian Education International first quarter data comes through in March, but early signs are that there is a pick up in both offers and acceptances overall," he said. "There looks to be some strong growth for us in Malaysia, China, Vietnam and Pakistan."

A spokesman for Macquarie University said there appeared to be no downturn in interest, or increase in deferrals, from international students.

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