AUSTRALIA was the only country that experienced a growth in the market share of Hong Kong students last year and now sits as the third most popular country among local students seeking an overseas education. Although ranking behind the United States and Britain in its total number of Hong Kong students, Australia recorded an increase of 15 per cent, from 9,720 in 1992 to 11,530 last year. The crowd at last week's Australia Education Exhibition '94 attested to this growing interest and fair organiser Jandy Godfrey, manager of the Hong Kong-based Australia Education Centre (AEC), predicted the trend would continue. She expected the numbers going to Australia would increase slightly by around 3,000 next year. ''There are many Hong Kong graduates who are now returning from Australia with encouraging reports of their valuable experience there,'' Ms Godfrey said. ''Students here are also shifting to Australia because they were put off by the security alarm in the US.'' Ms Godfrey believes the Hong Kong Education Department's push for mother-tongue teaching has encouraged a mounting number of students to turn to overseas institutions for an education in English. Commerce, business or economics are the most popular subjects among the 7,500 Hong Kong students enrolled in Australian universities, followed by science-based courses, nursing, health administration and medicine. ''We're seeing more top-quality students coming. Greater interest is shown in the visual and performing arts and more, especially mature students who have worked several years, are seeking the colleges of technical and further education (TAFE) courses.'' In recent years, locally registered nurses also choose a shortcut to a recognised nursing degree by taking an 18-month course in Australia. Australian institutions offering a Master in Business Administration (MBA) programme, however, usually require prior work experience of one to three years. More than 70 Australian institutions from both the government and private sectors were represented at the three-day fair and included universities, TAFE and business colleges, secondary schools and English-language intensive courses for overseas students. For more information on education in Australia, call the AEC's 24-hour hotline 827-8298.