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A Woroni analysis of Australian National University (ANU) documents uncovered by a Freedom of Information request reveals that ANU is moving to lower its proportion of Chinese international students, a group it describes as “dominating” international student numbers.

One report dated to May 2015 stated that “The University remains exposed to the Chinese international market,” and that “Diversification strategies at College and Central level are addressing this issue, but will take time to make a meaningful impact.”

Pro Vice-Chancellor (International and Outreach) Professor Shirley Leitch said that “Diversification has been on the agenda for the Australian university system for the past five years.” The earliest documents received by Woroni indicating a move towards countries other than China are dated to early 2015.

The move forms part of ANU’s diversification plan, by which it intends to target potential students from five nations considered “university-level priorities”: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore.

These intentions appear to buck the trend of the Australian economy, which is increasingly reliant on Chinese demand for imports and real estate. Should ANU succeed in its diversification plan, it would also be going against the trend in enrolments from Chinese nationals at universities across Australia, which currently overshadow those from all other countries.

Work in progress

However, numbers from recent years do not reflect a shift away from China, which ANU’s statistics treat separately from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In 2011, Chinese students accounted for 42.1% of ANU’s enrolled international students. Since then, that figure has dramatically risen to 59.1%, according to data from July 2016. Over 60% of commencing international undergraduate enrolments came from China this year.

The fruits of ANU’s efforts to increase enrolments from non-Chinese priority nations have been mixed. A comparison of figures from 2015 and 2016 shows that of the five university-level priority countries, only Singapore and India grew in terms of enrolments, by 8.0% and 24.7%, respectively.

ANU International Students Department President Harry Feng said he was unaware of the diversification strategy, but said, “I am not concerned as long as all the applicants … are treated fairly with the same set of standards.”

“It’s indeed one interesting piece of information … given the fact that, as far as I know, there are quite some universities in Australia which are solely concentrating on maximising their profits by recruiting as many international students as possible,” Feng said.

Professor Leitch emphasised that ANU’s international intake is largely driven by external factors, and that ANU will accept any students who meet its academic requirements.

Professor Leitch added that ANU has never pursued international marketing, and instead relies on student recruiters to increase its international presence, but that it is looking to develop an international marketing strategy to drive its diversification plan.

“We don’t think that an overreliance on a single market is particularly good for the student body, so we would like a greater range of source countries,” Professor Leitch said, pointing out the increased diversity in the classroom that would come from diversification.

The May 2015 report pointed out that, compared to the Group of Eight (Go8) average, ANU has the largest proportion of Chinese student load. This heavy dependence on China was raised by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington in a February 2016 ANU Council meeting, where she mentioned the need to “mitigate potential risk exposure in the event of market downturn.”

The May 2015 report goes into College-specific priorities, aiming for a target of 39% of international commencements at the College of Business and Economics (CBE) coming from countries other than China, particularly the five priority nations, and a 100% increase in CBE revenue by 2020. Professor Leitch indicated that the increase in CBE revenue would predominately come from increased fees rather than increased international student numbers.

Currently, only 26.1% of CBE international students are from countries other than China.

The College of Engineering and Computer Science is also targeting international students.  

The University of Sydney, which has a high proportion of Chinese international students, declined to comment on whether it is pursuing similar strategies.

Room for improvement

The May 15 report mentions the need for improved management of the University’s international agents. ANU has agreements with hundreds of overseas education agencies who act as middlemen in the recruitment of ANU international students, and are used by many if not most international students.

In 2015, an ABC Four Corners investigation exposed the sometimes corrupt and fraudulent activities of Chinese education agents, including some representing ANU.

In some cases, students with International English Language Testing System (IELTS) scores of only 4.5 were being admitted to Australian universities. ANU requires an IELTS score of 6.5 for admissions. These failures to follow entrance standards were found to have been facilitated by agents, who willingly accepted fake academic transcripts.

A study by Zinch China, a consulting company that advises American universities, estimated that 90% of Chinese university applicants forged recommendations, 70% submitted personal essays written by others, and 50% forged their high-school academic transcripts. The degree to which such behaviour is prevalent at Australian universities is unknown.

Another area for improvement explored in the report was the conversion rate from student place offers to acceptances, with around a quarter of postgraduate coursework degree offers being accepted in the first half of 2015, a decline of 8% from 2014.

Other parts of the diversification strategy include expanding its double Master’s degree program, agreements with scholarship agencies, articulation agreements with other universities, and creating more short-term non-award exchange opportunities.

Market downturn?

“There is no sign that the Chinese market is going to fail any time soon,” Professor Leitch said. “I think what is happening is that people are now starting to think that in ten years time, at the rate that the Chinese university system is developing its own high-quality universities, there will be less demand [for overseas higher education].”

ANU’s diversification plan displays a cautious long-term outlook towards the Chinese market for overseas higher education, but shows its confidence in the broader Chinese economy.

This confident outlook is at odds with the views of many China analysts, including Jonathan Anderson of the Emerging Advisors Group, who has historically been optimistic about the Chinese economy, but warned this year of a credit-driven crisis.

“For years we have been waiting for China to make the tough choice and sacrifice near-term growth in order to stabilise macro balance sheets and stop its exploding debt cycle,” Anderson was quoted in the Financial Times as writing, “[But] the costs of taking real adjustment are clearly too high for the government to bear … Right now we put the initial potential crisis threshold at around five years.”

Arthur Kroeber, editor of China Economic Quarterly and managing director at the research firm Gavekal Dragonomics, has a similarly dim view of China’s economic future. However, instead of predicting a collapse he has warned of a Japan-style economic slowdown.

Kroeber pointed out in an interview with Matt Phillips of Quartz that the Chinese government has lent money carelessly. He then argued that this situation leads to a Japan-style economic doldrums, where “there’s this very, very high debt level, and growth that has gone down to a very low level because most of this debt is going into totally unproductive stuff, and you basically have no way to get out of that.”