Down but Not Under: Australian Higher Education

Article excerpt

SUN SEA, SURF, SAFETY, CALIFORNIA-LIKE WEATHER, FRIENDLY PEOPLE, an English-speaking modern culture, an advanced economy, and a geographic location on the Asia-Pacific rim are the main selling points of Australian higher education. Two hundred thousand foreign students, mostly from Asia, now enjoy Australia's sun and beaches, as well as higher education; in fact, more than one in five Australian students is foreign. Overseas enrollment in Australian universities grew by nearly 300 percent in the decade to 2004, to 12 percent of the total number of foreign students in English speaking countries. Only 7,500 foreign students are from the United States-5,700 of them are exchange or study abroad students.

Despite this impressive growth in what amounts to a major Australian export industry, Australian higher education is facing rising challenges. Over the last few years, the Australian dollar has appreciated by about 50 percent against the U.S. dollar, making tuition fees and living expenses considerably higher for students who pay in dollar-related Asian currencies. Universities in the United States and the United Kingdom are looking for new ways to attract the same pool of Asian international students. U.S. and other universities build campuses in countries like Singapore and China that have been the traditional sources of foreign students in Australia. Some U.S. universities even examine the possibility of building campuses in Australia proper. Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University, for example, seeks to build a branch in the state of South Australia. Some Asian nations like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia are investing in expanding and improving their own public universities that may keep domestic students at home.

The growth in the size of the foreign student population has not just paid for itself, but it has also subsidized the expansion of the Australian public university sector to accommodate domestic students. Still, Australian universities find it difficult to make ends meet when domestic student enrollment keeps rising and support from the government gradually decreases. Far from the beaches and the exotic marsupials of the outback, in government departments and university administration offices, politicians, civil servants, administrators, and academics debate the future of Australian higher education.

In the early 1950s there were 30,000 students in Australia. By 1977 there were 300,000, nearly 20 years later the number swelled to 600,000 by 1995, and today, the number has soared to 930,000-240,000 of whom are graduate students. Initially, Australian universities were exclusively educational institutions. Australians conducted research and acquired advanced degrees abroad, mostly in the United Kingdom. Research and graduate degrees were introduced into Australian universities only after WWII. Mostly during the 1960s, the number of universities grew to accommodate the burgeoning number of students. Since then growth has been mostly accommodated by the increase in size of existing institutions and the founding of satellite campuses.

Initially all Australian higher education was public and free of charge, financed by the state. In 1981 the state paid for 90 percent of the costs of higher education, but by 2002, this figure declined to a mere 40 percent. The universities fill in the gap mostly by charging full fee from foreign students who pay annually $5 billion Australian dollars (about $3.75 billion in U.S. currency). Few Australian domestic students who fail to gain admission according to well-sought-after faculties (such as law) gain admission by paying full fees like foreign students do. Among the 531,000 undergraduates who currently study in Australian universities, 9,400 are full-fee-paying Australians. Universities have increased the ratio of students to staff from 12 to 1 in 1975 to 21 to 1 in 2003. Like institutions elsewhere, Australian universities use more untenured faculty and attempt to introduce commercialized research and consulting and joint ventures with industry. …