Hard work opens Australia's door
Jeff Fung Man-chiu arrived in Australia in 2003 as a fresh-faced school-leaver from Hong Kong to start an advanced diploma in engineering technology at RMIT University in Melbourne. Seven years later, he is still there and close to finishing his doctorate in mechanical engineering.
Australia's leading universities have yet to match those in the United States and Britain in terms of global reputations and resources, but Fung's progress shows that academic opportunities are available for capable students who persevere.
After gaining his diploma, Fung studied for a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). He worked for a year in Germany before returning to Melbourne to take his PhD.
Fung, who recently applied for permanent residency, has high hopes of landing a research position with Australia's national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
'Although Germany is a good place to work, I want to pursue a career in research and decided to stay on at RMIT,' he said. He chose Melbourne over Hong Kong because the latter was not strong in engineering research.
Fung said the PhD had been generally a good experience, although the work sometimes did not go as well as he had expected.
'It really needs hard work - and some luck,' he said. 'But the supervision is good. I work closely with my colleagues to solve problems, and my supervisors and colleagues are very helpful and supportive. RMIT has good facilities, so most of my work can be done at the university.
'Melbourne is a good place to study. The people are friendly and it is a good city to practise your English, which many Hong Kong students want to do.'
Hong Kong used to be a major source of international students for Australian universities but the numbers have fallen in recent years. The city ranks 18th on the list of source jurisdictions, which is headed by the mainland. Enrolment from Hong Kong fell 16 per cent in the past year while those from China rose 10 per cent.
Of the 7,000 Hong Kong students at Australian universities, the majority are in undergraduate, business-related courses. Fewer than 1,000 are postgraduates, and most of them are taking graduate diplomas or master's degrees by coursework. Fewer than 100 are tackling a PhD. Students seeking a master's by coursework need to obtain a higher-education-sector student visa; those aiming for a master's by thesis or a doctorate must apply for a postgraduate sector visa. Students must be accepted for full-time study before applying for a visa.
Tuition fees vary markedly from course to course and university to university. But international students can generally expect to pay A$20,000 (HK$157,000) per year or more for a master's by coursework degree and as much as A$40,000-plus for an MBA.
Although scholarships are available for some, most students work part-time to cover their tuition and living costs.
Fung works part-time tutoring engineering undergraduates at RMIT to help pay his annual PhD fees of A$24,000 and other costs. He has also been awarded a A$7,500 scholarship from the Australia-China Natural Gas Technology Partnership Fund. Fung estimates he spends A$1,500 a month on living expenses, including rent, utility bills, internet, transport and food.
'Students need to add more to the budget if they dine out or have gatherings with friends frequently,' he says. 'Also, my rent is a little bit higher than normal because I am living in the city and not in a suburb.' The rising value of the Australian dollar in recent months had raised the cost of living 10 to 11 per cent for Hong Kong students, he adds.
Under changes to the visa regulations, prospective international students must have access to at least A$18,000 per year, up from A$12,000 last year. The sum is to cover living costs for up to three years.
Announcing the changes in November last year, then immigration minister Chris Evans said the new figure better reflected student costs and was consistent with information in the Study in Australia guide, published by the Australian Education International government agency.
Evans stressed that living costs were only one component of the financial requirements for a visa. Students must also have enough funds to cover tuition fees, travel costs and the expenses of any dependants.
'International students can supplement their income through part-time work, but the primary purpose of a student visa is to study, and students should not rely on work to meet their expenses,' he said.
Australia allows overseas students to work in the country for 18 months after graduation, but a significant number also apply to stay on as permanent residents. In the past, many students, especially from India and China, found this an easy way to gain permanent residency, and dozens of colleges were established to exploit this 'back-door' entry.
The government this year imposed tight new restrictions on student visas and the skills required for a permanent residency visa. A sharp fall in student numbers followed and many colleges were forced to shut down. Although some universities have been affected by a drop in new students, none face serious financial difficulties.
Fung said he believed Australian universities were underrated globally, but acknowledged that they had been held back by a lack of government funding and industrial support for research.
'The reputation of a university is closely related to its research output, and Australian universities have fewer resources than those first-tier universities in the US or UK,' he said. 'It is hard to generate groundbreaking research without sufficient funding. Furthermore, there are not too many hi-tech industries in Australia, and it is more difficult to attract good researchers to work here.
'But Australian universities keep improving and they, as well as government and research organisations, are now more willing to provide scholarships and funding to support researchers.'
Web links: www.studyinaustralia.gov.au