Australia is challenging the UK as the world’s second-biggest destination for international students, behind the US
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The number of international students choosing to study in Australia has surged over the past few years to the point that Australia is overtaking the UK as the world’s second-biggest destination for international students, behind the US, according to researchers at University College London’s Centre for Global Higher Education.

In 2015, the UK attracted about 130,000 more overseas students than Australia, says UCL professor Simon Marginson. But in recent years, Australia has repeatedly increased its overseas student numbers by 12 to 14 per cent. Prof Marginson and his team believe Australia may have overtaken the UK. If not already, it will happen soon, they say.

Australia has a lot to offer school leavers with a sense of wanderlust. It is famed for its beaches, food and natural assets, while bustling cities such as Sydney and Melbourne are considered some of the most liveable in the world. “Australia is seen as an El Dorado-type destination,” says Laura Bell, an academic registrar at Melbourne Business School.

Business schools have been at the centre of the growth in overseas students in Australia, with many attracted to well-regarded courses at institutions such as MBS, which has an MBA course ranked 66th in the world.

Explaining the growth in overseas student numbers, Prof Marginson says: “Australia shares the advantages of all English-speaking countries in the global market. Its reputation for quality is not as strong as the UK [and the US] but it has a favourable climate and proximity to east and south-east Asia, and it is closer than the UK to India. These are the most important source regions for international students.

“Australia has also been less nervous than the UK about migration in general, and the possibility of international students becoming migrants in particular,” he adds.

Kim Watson, from the Isle of Man, completed a masters degree in business analytics at MBS in 2016 after graduating from Leeds University in the UK with a first-class maths degree. Ms Watson, who did an exchange at the University of Sydney while at Leeds, says she chose MBS because it has “established relationships with lots of companies”.

She adds: “I thought it would help me to find a job and, in turn, a visa so I could stay permanently.” Ms Watson now works as an analyst at Medibank, one of Australia’s leading health insurance providers.

Australian undergraduate courses are also attracting overseas talent. Born in Hong Kong, Siobhan O’Rorke studied for a commerce degree at the University of Sydney between 2009 and 2012. She believes her A-levels enabled her to get into a better school in Australia than would have been possible in the UK. She now works as a marketing manager at a project management software provider.

“There was a wide range of courses to pick from,” Ms O’Rorke says, which allowed her to try “a lot of different things” before she decided on her major.

“The main downside is that it’s a really expensive place to live. My parents paid my living expenses, thank goodness, but I still worked two jobs throughout my time there. It’s extra tough being an international student because we didn’t get any of the student concessions afforded to local students.”

Ms O’Rorke left Australia after her degree, though international students on two-year degree programmes in Australia are allowed to stay for an additional two years on a post-study work visa. Several students and university staff say this visa extension option was one of the main reasons overseas students were attracted to Australia.

Some universities have tweaked their courses to ensure international students are eligible to work in Australia when they graduate. In 2013, the University of Sydney Business School increased the length of certain masters programmes from one-and-a-half to two years.

“It allowed us to market more effectively the post-study work visa opportunity,” says Prof John Shields, deputy dean and head of the University of Sydney Business School, adding that the university had to act amid falling government funding.

But changing the course length raised new challenges. “We started to have a surge from China,” says Prof Shields. Accompanying this was a decline in numbers from other countries and a fall in the volume of domestic students, he says.

The University of Sydney Business School has 14,000 students on its undergraduate and postgraduate courses. At the masters level, 80 per cent of students at the Business School hail from China, Prof Shields says.

Prof Shields wants to attract more students from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea and Malaysia. “We are moving belatedly to do that now,” he says.

“The strategic decision we made in 2014 to seek to gain more load from China was a deliberate choice driven by a desire to increase revenue in a market that already liked us a lot,” he adds.

“You could say that strategy has been too successful and we’re now paying the consequences for that in terms of lack of diversity in the postgraduate cohort.”

The increase in the volume of Chinese students has resulted in other problems. Racist messages — such as “kill Chinese” and posters saying “entry into the campus of Chinese students should be strictly prohibited” — have appeared at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne and Monash University. The messages were condemned by the universities.

While Australian business schools are clearly rising up the pecking order, they are some way off the top business schools of the world.

Giving some indication of the quality of the competition, Valerie Osband, a Stanford University MBA student, says: “In the US, the reputation and recognition of many top MBA programme, such as Stanford, far exceeds that of programmes elsewhere around the world.

“Schools outside of the top US programmes lack the established track record,” she adds.

• Research is key to Australian schools’ rise

Universities are judged on the quality of their research and Australian business schools are taking a number of steps to ensure their financial research is of the highest quality.

In an effort improve their world rankings, Australian business schools such as Melbourne Business School are attracting big names to lead their academics or advise them on research.

Jan Craps, chief executive of Australia’s Carlton and United Breweries, joined the board of MBS in September. Monash Business School has appointed Professor Simon Wilkie, former Microsoft chief economic strategist, as the dean of its economics and business faculty.

Hugh Williams (pictured), who has served in senior roles at eBay, Microsoft, Tinder, and most recently as vice-president of engineering and product at Google, also joined MBS recently. Best known for his work on search engines and for inventing infinite scroll, Mr Williams is teaching MBS’s executive education programmes and providing strategic advice to the MBS Centre of Business Analytics.

Australian business schools also host a range of international conferences throughout the year, such as the International Conference on Management Science and Engineering Management at Monash.

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