What happens when Australia takes something it does really well and sells it to the world? International education is a success story of this kind. Our universities are among the best on the planet, and each year students arrive from more than 150 countries. Even in the midst of COVID, international education is Australia’s fourth largest export, and Victoria’s largest. To have built such a successful export industry in a few decades should be cause for celebration—and yet too often this success is viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to students from China.
According to recent research by Innovative Research Universities, in 2019 we had 133,000 Chinese students in Australia, comprising 13 per cent of total University enrolments, and just under a third—31 per cent—of our total education exports. Certainly, this is a big chunk of the education we provide to overseas students. But are we over-exposed and how does education compare with other Australian exports?
The latest trade figures (June 2020) show that China accounts for 48.8 per cent of all Australia’s traded goods exports. That’s a much higher share than higher education (31 per cent). Our agricultural and fishing industries sell 32 per cent of their exports to China. So, education is a tiny bit less reliant on China than agriculture. What about mining? The Commonwealth Government regularly points out the importance of the mining sector to Australia’s economy. Well, mining sells just on half (much higher for iron ore) of its product to China. So, the education sector is significantly less exposed to China than mining.
If our education sector is to be criticised for selling too much to China, then the resources and agricultural sectors should be criticised even more. And yet mining and agriculture are rightly celebrated as success stories in Australia’s engagement with global markets.
Why is international education so often singled out as being ‘too reliant’on China? The international education sector is already diversified, more so than other sectors. India contributes 16 per cent of our education exports. Several countries in our top ten student markets, including Vietnam and Pakistan, are not in the top ten for overall exports. International education is about 8 per cent of Australia’s total trade with China; 11 per cent with Indonesia; 17 per cent with Vietnam; and 21 per cent with India.
Let’s not pretend that the Chinese market—the world’s largest—is replaceable. And why should we want to replace it? I can testify from firsthand experience that our Chinese student community, like our Chinese-Australian community, are great contributors to the life of the university and hugely valued members of the broader public. After all, as the recent Innovative Research Universities’ report points out, we don’t just educate our international students—they educate us, by sharing their cultures, languages and histories.
We must also recognise the broader economic benefits of international students. They don’t just study here. They also shop, eat in restaurants, go to the movies, live in accommodation, visit regional areas, bring family out to visit, and more. Many who stay and enjoy the benefits of permanent residency start businesses, create employment, help meet skills shortages and support the innovation economy. That’s why international education supports at least 250,000 jobs in Australia.
More than half of university research funding each year relies on international student fees, and 38 per cent of our doctoral researchers are international students. Given that the global economy is only going to be more driven by research and innovation, not less, we should welcome this. With government debt at record highs and many demands on the public purse, it would be strange to reject this contribution to Australia’s research capabilities.
Some commentators who believe we should have fewer Chinese students fear China might ‘turn off the tap’. While the Australia-China relationship is in a very difficult place—this ignores our long-term friendship and our highly complementary economic relationship. The way to hedge against volatility and uncertainty is not to abandon a market: rather, we should develop even deeper, stronger and longer-lasting ties with the Chinese people.
Despite recent difficulties, there is still much to celebrate in the Australia-China relationship. The Chinese economy is growing rapidly and Australian exports remain at record high levels. Australia would be making a terrible mistake to discard old friends and markets in the name of ‘diversification’. By all means, let’s celebrate and continue to grow the relationships we have with other partner countries and students—India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Singapore and more. But let’s recognise that there are still many young Chinese people looking for a quality, affordable and safe place to study. Australia can offer just that. We should continue to do so.