The Growth of the Higher Education Sector as an Industry: What We Can Learn from Australia

4 min read

Elizabeth Koprowski

It is not a secret that higher education has become a major economic player in markets around the world. Higher education institutions are driving domestic and international growth in many countries, and nations are actively competing for the growing numbers of mobile students who want to study abroad. Current estimates for student mobility suggest that more than five million students studied outside of their home country between 2014 and 2015, with more students looking abroad for higher education, vocational training, and post-graduate studies.

So, where are these millions of students headed? The United States and the United Kingdom still dominate the global higher education market, but studies show that students are looking beyond traditional destinations and Australia is growing in popularity. In 2015 nearly 500,000 of the estimated 5 million students studying abroad choose Australia as their destination. Higher education is now the country’s third-largest export and its universities and institutions contributed at least $32.3 billion to Australia’s economy. Higher education is also Australia’s most valuable service export, outpacing the economic growth of the country as a whole.

Recruitment Matters

What has been the key to Australia’s success in international higher education? In recent years, the country has made concerted efforts to raise educational standards, expand provisions for training and language programs, and support education institutions with government initiatives that incentivize research and development. All of these factors allow Australian universities to recruit top students from around the world. And by attracting the right students to its universities and research facilities, Australia is able to expand its academic reach and climb global rankings for innovation and development. In fact, in 2012 Universities Australia reported that despite representing just 0.3 percent of the world’s population, the country produced 3.6 percent of the world’s research papers.

Australia’s efforts to attract international students have allowed the country to expand its reach into the essential international student base – emerging markets. In 2015 more than 65 percent of the international students studying in Australia came from emerging market countries, including China, Brazil, India, and South Korea. Students from these and other countries are attracted to Australia because of its high standards of education, accessible and stable tuition prices, and Australia’s global recognition as an education service provider.

Australia is an attractive destination for students, but the country doesn’t rest on its laurels. In recent years, Australia’s universities and schools have taken a proactive approach to recruitment. In anticipation of student mobility growth in key areas and to maintain the country’s 5.3 percent growth in international student enrollment, many Australian institutions have implemented student diversification policies and have begun direct recruitment to specific demographics or regions.


Services Matter

Recruitment strategies based on demographics can help countries like Australia grow their international student populations, but Australia is also concentrating its efforts on more direct student concerns like the availability and efficacy of university student services. A recent survey found that a large majority of Australian universities utilize international offices to market to international students. The same data showed that nearly 40 percent of university-owned accommodations were filled with international students. But in both instances, Australia is making efforts to develop and improve these services. Increasing student numbers, both from abroad and home, are putting stress on infrastructure and administration. To maintain standards and exceed expectations, countries like Australia that want to continue positive international enrollment need to ensure adequate service and support for students from around the world.


Cooperation Matters

Student mobility is driven in large part by students’ desire to acquire transferable and marketable skills that are in demand throughout the world. While countries like Australia may attract a significant number of students who hope to remain and seek employment after graduation, many students study abroad with the intention of returning to their home country or migrating elsewhere in the world. For this reason, countries with international aspirations for their higher education sectors need to work on developing academic partnerships and degree-recognition programs with other countries and regions around the world. In recent years, Australia has fostered strong relationships with countries like India and Japan, and the country’s outward strategy for higher education as an export focuses on partnerships with major players in the global education sector. And Australia is not the only country to concentrate on global collaboration. China, Russia, the UK, and many other countries have established agreements and cooperative schemes that facilitate student mobility, recognize international qualifications, and promote research exchange across faculties and borders.


The Future Matters

Still, one of the best ways to maximize the potential of marketing strategies and promote support and infrastructure development is to anticipate trends in student mobility and study demands. For Australia, this means an expected growth of at least 4 percent each year. Additionally, research suggests that in addition to students from China and India, Australia can expect to see rising numbers of students from Pakistan, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Similarly, higher education forecasts indicate that while the current increase in student mobility is largely driven by increased numbers of undergraduate enrollment, graduate students are still a major contributor to overseas student populations. And with universities around the world striving to climb rankings and earn recognition as research institutions, international graduate students present a valuable resource and opportunity to add diversity and expertise to their research portfolios.

In the end, each country, region, and individual higher education institution needs to carefully assess its goals and expectations regarding international education. Global student mobility is dynamic and markets change constantly. Strategies and solutions that work in one location or in one year will not always produce the same results. In Australia, and every internationally-oriented country, understanding, and anticipating trends in student mobility is the key to developing and improving higher education.

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