In the year to the end of February there was a 17 per cent increase in growth of students from India, compared to 16 per cent from China. Total international student numbers hit 509,610, which was a 12 per cent increase on the previous year, with India contributing more than 62,000 students to the tertiary sector.Strong growth in enrolments from India has helped push international student numbers over half a million for the first time.
China contributed more in absolute numbers but the growth of India as a source of international students has been welcomed by universities, which have been desperate to diversify their income stream away from China.
Twice in the past five months Beijing has signalled it is ready to stop its young people from travelling to Australia in search of education, threatening to undermine the business model of many universities. Relations between Beijing and Canberra have been strained by China building naval bases in the South China Sea, and only last week deteriorated again when it was revealed Beijing was interested in sending navy ships to Vanuatu.
Universities also welcomed the relative strength of Chinese arrivals, saying that despite Beijing's warnings, students have not been put off coming to Australia. Huang he
Universities have been beating a path to Canberra, urging the government to tone down its diplomatic spat with Beijing in order to prevent a collapse in revenue, especially since the government cut off funding for new domestic students.
Universities welcomed the relative strength of Chinese arrivals, saying that despite Beijing's warnings, students have not been put off coming to Australia.
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham pointed to the increasing diversity in international student arrivals, noting that enrolments from Colombia and Brazil were both up nearly 30 per cent in the past 12 months. Nepal was up 54 per cent, admittedly off a low base.
"The sector also supports around 130,000 local jobs through tourism, retail and hospitality and recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown the value of international education jumped 22 per cent from 2016 to $32.2 billion last year," Senator Birmingham said.
The chief executive of the Group of Eight major universities, Vicki Thomson, said there had been a consistent effort by government and the higher education sector to rebuild the India market after a collapse in arrivals in 2009, following a series of attacks on students.
"We worked really hard to rebuild our reputation even though it wasn't the uni sector that was to blame. We had to work hard at the time and so did Labor and Liberal governments.
"Australian governments have recognised India is an important partner for us. Look at the Australia India Economic Strategy – which is still to be signed, and a lot of ministerial visits," she said.
Ms Thomson said growth in Chinese students was partly due to university-to-university relationships which encouraged the offshore market at a time of uncertainty at a political level.
The Grattan Institute's Andrew Norton said it was important to look at where Indian and Chinese students were going and how much they were paying. Indian students tended to go to less-expensive universities whereas Chinese students were prepared to pay higher fees to go to the sandstone campuses. In any case China still contributed the biggest overall number of students.
Dr Norton said it was still possible there would be a drop-off in business from China over political issues. "These decisions are made a long way ahead. There may be a delayed effect and we may see a softening in Chinese student numbers down the track."
The CEO of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, said the fact that half a million international students were studying in the country was a significant contributor to the economy.
"These half a million international students will become tomorrow's global leaders, returning home as informal ambassadors for Australia and extending our nation's worldwide networks in business, diplomacy and politics," she said.