'Racist' attacks fail to tarnish image

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 November, 2009, 12:00am

To describe this year as a rough patch for Australia's international education providers would be an understatement.

After enjoying a robust reputation as a favoured study destination for Asian students, the sector has taken a severe beating, with newspaper headlines from Melbourne to Mumbai screaming outrage over 'racist' attacks on Indian students.

With education Australia's third largest export, the attacks have prompted much soul-searching among educators and sparked talks between ministers, foreign diplomats, universities and police.

Despite the concerns, research shows that international students still perceive Australia to be a safe, affordable destination.

An IDP Education survey of more than 6,000 international students released last month showed that students ranked Australia first in terms of safety and affordability compared with Britain, Canada, the United States and New Zealand.

When it came to safety, almost 40 per cent of those surveyed ranked Australia first, ahead of New Zealand (15.7 per cent), Canada (13.1 per cent), Britain (10.2 per cent) and the US (4.3 per cent).

More than half the respondents nominated Australia as the most affordable destination, and the country was ranked first in terms of providing access to student visas and permanent residency, having the best on-campus community, best access to teaching staff and best government policies to protect international students.

The research, which was released at the Australian International Education Conference in Sydney, found Australia also topped the list in the categories of low tuition fees and good accommodation options. However, more students considered the US to be more prestigious, to offer the best graduate employment and offer degrees which were recognised worldwide.

The IDP Education office in Hong Kong said local students had not expressed safety concerns, and that Australia remained a safe study destination in the minds of students.

This view was supported by Hong Kong-based education consultant Alan Olsen who said he had discussed racial tensions in his recent work with international postgraduate students. Olsen, director of Strategy Policy and Research in Education, said international students represented 22 per cent of all postgraduate research students in Australian universities last year.

He said the number of international postgraduate research students in Australia had been growing at 10 per cent annually and many of these students received scholarships from their universities.

'International research students are attracted to the Australian-style doctorate, research intensive with the dissertation topic chosen at the start of the degree. The typical Australian PhD is completed in 4.5 years, compared with 8.5 years for the US PhD with coursework included,' he said.

Completing a master's degree at an Australian university usually takes from one to two years.

Calvin Chan Shing-kit, manager of the Hong Kong branch of IDP Education, said the most popular postgraduate courses for Hong Kong students in Australia were business and commerce, nutrition and dietetics, psychology, arts and information technology. Chan said postgraduate students should consider the duration of the course, the university's reputation and research facilities, its location and budget.

The study by IDP showed that while international students considered Perth and Adelaide quiet and affordable, they believed Melbourne and Sydney had a more multicultural feel, good entertainment options and were dynamic cities.

Australian institutions have enjoyed a good reputation for quality education. Six Australian universities were ranked in the world's top 50 in the Times Higher Education Supplement world university rankings released last month. Those looking to pursue research degrees may find the 'Group of Eight' universities a useful starting point. These research-intensive universities are home to about a third of international students and more than half of international higher degrees by research students enrolled in Australian universities.

The Group of Eight comprises the Australian National University, University of Adelaide, University of Western Australia, University of Queensland, Monash University, University of Melbourne, University of New South Wales and University of Sydney.

The Australian National University (ANU), located in Canberra, was ranked first in the nation in the recent Times survey, coming in at 17th place internationally. The rankings are based on six factors, one of which is the institution's proportion of international faculty and students.

This year, 29 per cent of all postgraduate students at ANU were from overseas. About 35 per cent of international postgraduate students were from Northeast Asia, primarily mainland China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

This semester about 470 students from the mainland and Hong Kong were enrolled in postgraduate courses at ANU, representing more than 27 per cent of all international postgraduate students.

ANU registrar Tim Beckett said the university's international students came from more than 100 countries, with Chinese students the largest single ethnic group. 'Our international students bring another dimension to the university, their cultural and educational differences, aspirations and interests all add to the ANU experience,' he said. 'Our international students enrich the way our Australian students, and other international students, view the world. They bring new methods of inquiry, new solutions and new points of view.'

Those applying to study a master's degree by coursework in Australia need to obtain a Higher Education Sector student visa, while students studying a master's by thesis or a doctoral degree need to apply for a postgraduate sector student visa.

Students must have been accepted for full-time study on a registered course before applying for a student visa.

Web links

www.studyinaustralia.gov.au - the Australian government website for international students, with details provided in various languages and contact details for students in their country or region

www.deewr.gov.au - the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations website

www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au - provides contact information for Australian universities

www.go8.edu.au - provides links to Australia's top eight research-intensive universities