Around 600,000 international students come to Australia each year, roughly one third from China. It’s a gigantic influx that generates around $20 billion per annum, but to my mind, we’re just getting started.
I say this after spending a week in the Chinese province of Guangdong. In town as a guest of My Life in Australia, I chatted with students, teachers, principals and parents, together with a number of education agents, investors and policy makers. Every single one of those conversations confirmed what the stats already tell us: the demand for education here is huge.
Of course, plenty of our public universities know that already. Some of them may already be nearing capacity in terms of how many more international students they can squeeze in. However, I can see some major opportunities for private universities and VET providers over the next few years. Vocational education in China is, frankly, not all that good.
While our first-tier schools already have a steady stream of Chinese students, that’s not yet the case with the next couple of tiers down. So, schools that want a bit more cultural diversity on campus could certainly start looking to our northern neighbours, whether that be for student exchanges, teacher exchanges or study tours.
So why do the Chinese tend to find Australia so appealing? It mostly comes down to the way that we teach. There’s just more focus on soft skills down here, as opposed to robotic rote learning. Classes in China are not about interacting with people, showing creativity and leadership, and getting involved in lots of hands-on activities. They’re about sitting down in a room full of 50 or more kids and writing down whatever the teacher tells you. They’re basically about being told what to think rather than learning to think for themselves.
Australia’s appeal may well grow even further, thanks to recent policy moves on the part on both governments. Down here, the Turnbull government has just streamlined the visa system, making it much easier for Chinese kids to apply.
Over there, the Chinese government has just made learning English compulsory, from the first day of school all the way to the end. That will certainly translate into more students wanting to come here to study. Just watch the flow-through over the next few years.
Having said that, many of those students could flow through to Britain or the US instead. So what can we do to make sure they come here? On a government level, I’d suggest that Australia adopt a single national curriculum, rather our current grab bag of state-based systems. International students want a simple national standard that makes it easy to set and reach benchmarks. When every state has a different curriculum, it just gets too confusing.
What can schools, TAFEs and universities do? You’ve just got to offer the right programs. Even though international students will pay more, all of that can’t go straight into your pocket. You’ve got to spend it on extra support services. You’ve got to help them learn the language, settle in, make friends, meet contacts and so forth. It about making sure that they have a good cultural experience and make lasting relationships that they can use in later life.
Equally important, for schools at least, is communicating directly and often with the parents and making that communication as clear as you can. Parents want to know how their kids are doing, but a lot of them find it very hard to understand the reports.
Direct communication is even more important when it comes to recruiting kids in the first place. It’s still very difficult for parents over there to work out where they should send their kids. Most of the agents have relationships with a very finite amount of schools and will simply advise that the kids go to wherever they get a commission.
This is where My Life in Australia plans to step in and, with support Good Education Media, act as a matchmaker of sorts and fit the right school to the right kid.
It’s exciting times for both countries – and I think that even better times lie ahead.
Chris Lester is Good Education Media’s Chief Executive Officer and brings to the sector more than two decades of experience in strategic management, business development and financial services. Chris recently visited the province of Guangdong in southeast China as part of a program to explore collaboration opportunities between Chinese schools and Australian education providers. Learn more about Chris.