The Department of Education and Training has confirmed Australia’s international education industry improved across all sectors in 2017, in its end of year statistics. But while the industry experienced significant growth, concerns persist over whether the government is consistent in its ambitions to diversify source markets.

According to the statistics, released in March, 624,001 international students chose an Australian education in 2017, a 12.7% increase from 2016 figures, with enrolments and commencements also improving substantially.

“International students are voting with their feet, making Australia the third most popular study destination in the world for tertiary students and the second most popular study destination for tertiary students from China and India,” education minister Simon Birmingham said in a statement.

“Since 2014, we’ve seen 54% growth in Chinese student numbers, 62% growth from Brazil, 73% from Colombia, 79% from Sri Lanka, 48% from India and even 113% from Nepal.”

Despite the overall improvements, which saw 2017 figures also improve upon the previous year’s proportionate increases – Australian international education grew by 10.9% in 2016, 1.8 percentage points below 2017 – much of the growth appears to have come from China.

Contributing 39.5% of the increase in enrolments, China also further strengthened its share among source nations, now representing 28.9% of all newly enrolled students.

Phil Honeywood, chief executive of IEAA, said an over-reliance on any source country presented potential dangers, but so far the government had been inconsistent across departments in its moves towards diversifying Australia’s student population.

“We have Austrade encouraging providers to diversify their markets, for example, into Nigeria at the moment, but then Home Affairs are approving very few visas,” he said.

Under Australia’s Simplified Student Visa Framework, an institution’s risk is assessed upon rejection rates and the number of students who violate the terms of their visa. Honeywood argues this leaves no incentive for providers to enter into new markets.

“We need a better alignment in the messaging that’s coming out of Austrade to go forth and multiply in new markets, particularly in Africa, and [on] the reality of whether that marketing effort will be rewarded with visa approvals.”

Across sectors, VET and higher education experienced the most substantial gains, improving enrolments by 17% and 15%, respectively, followed by non-award programs and schools with 14% and 11%.

Meanwhile, DET confirmed ELICOS, which was the only sector not to have already surpassed 2016 numbers when The PIE News last covered Australian figures, had improved overall numbers, albeit by 2.9%.

English Australia chief executive Brett Blacker said that while overall ELICOS grew, the final five months of 2017 saw consecutive losses – the first time this has occurred this decade – equating to 1,334 fewer students in that period.

“The pattern of ELICOS commencements is relatively cyclical with peaks and troughs throughout the year,” he said, adding that this would have a follow-on effect for other sectors.

“The impact of the lower commencement is likely to flow into the 2018 data for higher education and VET sectors given the high proportion of ELICOS students on pathways, however, due to the lag in reporting this won’t be clear for a couple of months.”

In a data-heavy period for Australian international education, DET also released statistics on offshore delivery of higher education, which showed a 2.6% increase in enrolments from 2015-16, while DHA released it’s 2017/18 financial year to December study visa figures.

Study visa grants were 7.0% above the same period in 2016, however, notably, offshore visa grants for Chinese students entering higher education failed to improve. In fact, one fewer visa was granted.

Speculation the decreased number of Chinese offshore visa grants was an indication of flatlining student recruitment into universities, however, appears unwarranted. A DHA spokesperson confirmed to The PIE that “a course is registered for a particular sector, not the provider”.

“Non-university education providers are able to deliver higher education courses,” the spokesperson said, adding statistics were not broken down by provider.

Australia’s international education industry is currently worth A$29.4bn.

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