International students The sector has rebounded to pre-2020 levels, with flexibility of course content key to attracting visitors, writes Michael Smith in Tokyo.

Janine Wan was still in high school when she decided to move from Singapore to finish her education in Australia.

Wan, who is now 25, jokes about getting into trouble for asking too many questions; she wanted a higher education system that was less rigid where she could challenge her teachers.

‘‘I was always getting into trouble at school in Singapore because I am the type of person who likes asking a billion questions. The Singapore system can be quite structured in that way, so it wasn’t best suited for me,’’ she says.

‘‘It was really refreshing moving to Australia and being able to ask those questions and feeling supported in that way.’’

The boom in international students has been a success story for the Australian university sector, making up 27 per cent of total revenue.

Despite the disruption from COVID-19, the numbers have now bounced back. International student numbers are now greater than they were in 2019, with 655,000 student visa holders as of July – 200,000 more than at the beginning of 2023.

The mix of students has also shifted. Chinese students, who accounted for one in every four new enrolments in 2019, have fallen by 37 per cent. Indian student enrolments, particularly in the vocational education sector, are up by the same amount.

Wan, who completed a law degree at Canberra’s Australian National University in 2019 and now works as a corporate lawyer for King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) in Singapore, had also heard Australian universities were more flexible than in other countries, and courses could be tailored to the individual.

This was important for Wan who had several potential career paths at the time and wanted to be able to pursue all her options. Before studying law, she initially wanted to be a biological anthropologist.

Wan moved to Melbourne to finish high school as a boarding student with the aim of eventually ending up at an Australian university. She completed years 10, 11 and 12 at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne.

‘‘There were definitely challenges moving at that age, but I enjoyed it. I have always been independent,’’ she says.

Wan chose Australia over the United Kingdom not only because of its proximity to Singapore but also the flexibility of the education system, which allows high school students to take a university class. Wan completed two history courses at Melbourne University while still in school.

‘‘The reason why I considered moving to Australia for the education system was because I heard it was a lot more flexible and a lot more tailored to the individual with a focus on critical analysis.’’

After finishing year 12, Wan chose ANU because of its anthropology program and because she could do a law degree while studying other subjects as well. ANU ranks third overall in The Australian Financial Review’s Best Universities Ranking. ‘‘There was a lot of flexibility to explore your broader interests which is quite unique,’’ she says.

‘‘The prestige of ANU was definitely attractive. The approach is more intimate and the learning experience, I felt like I could get a lot of face time with the professors and really dig into what you were studying.’’

Wan made friends with students from all over the world at ANU and says the diversity was a major positive. ‘‘I have been lucky to be in very multicultural environments both in my Melbourne school and in Canberra. You get exposed to a lot of different experiences and opinions.’’

In the end, Wan chose law over anthropology and completed a four-year law degree at the end of 2019. She recalls the bushfires sweeping through Australia that summer and her sadness at leaving behind a close-knit group of friends in Canberra.

Asked if there were any negatives about her experience, she says the only issue was that international students looking to work in Australia after graduating could find it hard to secure a job.

‘‘The reality is it can be quite hard in certain industries looking for work in Australia as an international student. Some places don’t consider international students. That is something a lot of people struggle with,’’ she says.

Wan did not have any trouble finding work. She decided to move back to Singapore, partly for family but also for the huge opportunities working in Asia. She found a job with a big local law firm in Singapore and moved back in April 2020 just as COVID-19 hit.

She says some of her seniors at the firm told her Australian universities were considered inferior to those in the United Kingdom, but she saw no evidence of that when she was interviewing for jobs. Two years ago, she joined KWM where she is now an associate on the firm’s mergers and acquisitions team.

KWM already employed Australian graduates so she didn’t have a problem. ‘‘Singapore and Australia have put a lot of work into partnerships and university connections, I didn’t feel at all I was disadvantaged.’’

Employers in Asia say they like graduates from Australian universities despite some tough competition from institutions in the United States, the UK and Canada.

‘‘All four, including Australia, are still in the top bucket,’’ says Robert Quinlivan, who sits on the board of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, and knows many of the city’s employers. ‘‘But there are some questions around the US because of safety/ guns etc. Canada has some visa benefits which are attractive for people post-grad.

‘‘Australia has the benefit of being close and [students from there] tend to be able to get jobs in Hong Kong.

‘‘I have three children at Australian universities at the moment, so my sense is that the overall proposition is pretty good.’’

While Australian universities compete with popular Hong Kong universities such as the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, wealthier parents in mainland China prefer to send their children overseas.

A breakdown in China-Australia diplomatic relations in 2019 triggered a wave of negative stories about safety in Australia in the Chinese media, putting some parents off. However, Australia is back in favour with the Chinese government and media, although a slowing economy means parents have less money to send their children overseas.

This year’s unexpected spike in international student numbers has prompted backbench criticism of policies that make it easier for ‘‘lower quality’’ foreign university students to stay in the country and to work.

A report from the Grattan Institute in October, Graduates in Limbo: international student visa pathways after graduation, warned Australia offered international students more generous rights to stay and work after they graduated than other countries. It argued this gave them ‘‘false hope’’ to graduates who would never gain permanent residency, and threatened Australia’s reputation as a destination for tertiary study.

It said temporary graduate visa-holders in Australia would almost double to about 370,000 by 2030.

For Hong Kong-born Natalie Chan, the main attraction of studying in Australia was the multicultural atmosphere.

‘‘I liked the multiculturalism which creates a broader way of thinking, the friendly vibe of the university and the staff who were super supportive of foreign students, although this didn’t really make up for the pricey tuition fee,’’ says Chan, 30, who studied a master of communications at Melbourne’s RMIT university from 2018.

She liked an environment which she says allowed students to be creative and act like themselves compared to Hong Kong which was more constrained.

Now back in Hong Kong, Chan says the advantages of studying in Australia or other English-speaking countries is that employers like overseas graduates and their language skills.

She says RMIT has a good reputation in creative industries and offered opportunities to network with the local industry which helps students find jobs after graduating. AFR