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Indians, Chinese flock Australian univs

With fees for overseas students half the rate in Melbourne and Sydney, Ballarat is winning bigger slice of business.

india Updated: Apr 15, 2006 11:35 IST

Indian restaurants are busy in Ballarat, a 90-minute drive north of Melbourne.

Most customers comprise the hundreds of Indians studying at the town's two universities.

Around 100 or so Indian families have also made the archetypal Australian country town their home.

With fees for overseas students half the rate in Melbourne and Sydney, and living costs much lower than in Australia's two big conurbations, Ballarat is winning a bigger slice of a business that is now worth over Australian $5 billion to the economy.

Some 22,000 Indians were enrolled at Australian universities last year, 25 per cent more than in 2004, and up from just a couple of thousand five years ago.

In the ranking for source countries, India came in second behind China, which sent 70,000 youngsters to get degrees in Australia -- a third more than in 2004.

Ballarat, a town of 80,000, has positioned itself at what might be called the entry level of the higher education market.

Its 600 foreign students are mostly after first degrees -- and a chance to set up home in a place like Ballarat.

A recent study by Monash University's Michiel Baas found that three-quarters of Indian students who complete university courses in Australia apply and get permanent residency visas.

"The most important reason they come to Australia is not because they rank Australian universities very highly, but much more because they are attracted by the option of applying for permanent residency after graduation," Baas said.

Bob Birrell, also an academic at Melbourne's Monash, said "immigration-oriented" higher education had become an important new feature at the less prestigious of the country's 38 universities.

It's not just an Australian phenomenon. An attraction of a degree gained in Singapore is the chance of a job and a visa at the end of it.

The changes are coming thick and fast in what is Australia's third-largest service export.

Foreign students now contribute 14 per cent of university revenue.

They make up one in five of the total numbers enrolled. It's a big business and the market is forcing big changes.

China and India are big source countries. So is the United States.

But demand is slackening in traditional markets like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore.

A strengthening of the Australian dollar and the pegging of the Malaysian ringgit has meant that what Malaysians pay to study in Australia has risen 83 per cent in the last three years.

While it's very difficult to make accurate comparisons because of exchange rate fluctuations and courses being of different lengths, IDP Australia, the marketing organisation owned by Australia's universities, said studying in Australia was not necessarily a cheaper option than Britain and the United States.

By most measures, New Zealand and Canada have always been cheaper.

The IDP's Marcelo Follari said Asian students were now noting improving standards at home and reserving foreign study for advanced degrees.

Australia's top-drawer universities are holding their own at the top end of the market.

"Australian education must be perceived as high-quality," said John Ingleson, vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney.

His university, one of six Australian institutions included in a ranking by London's Times of the world's top 50 universities, has 23 per cent of its enrolment of 40,000 from abroad.

UNSW was last year picked by the Singapore government to be the first foreign university to set up a campus in the island republic.

It expects to have 15,000 enrolled on first-degree and advanced-degree courses when it is fully operational.

Singaporeans would make up 30 per cent of the intake, with the remainder from China, India, Malaysia and Singapore.

The Singapore contract was a huge boost for the university, Ingleson, because it would place UNSW between the two biggest markets for English-language education -- China and India.

It's still the case that the US has the universities to beat. More than a third of Chinese students pick the US.

Overall, Australia takes fourth place after the US, Britain and Germany.

Australian universities have set themselves a maximum of one in four students from abroad.

The UNSW campus is one response to the changes in the marketplace.

Demand for an Australian education, provided either here or offshore, will increase tenfold in 20 years, according to IDP. Half of the demand will be from China and India.