Australia's universities have an "extreme" financial reliance on Chinese international students, and a sudden economic collapse in the country could see revenues fall dramatically and taxpayers foot the bill, a report suggests.
The China student boom and the risks it poses to Australian universities, released by the Centre for Independent Studies on Wednesday, cites Australian National University as one of seven with high exposure to the Chinese market.
It estimates more than 59 per cent of the university's international students hail from China, correlating to nearly $164 million a year, or 13 per cent, of its annual revenue. The 59 per cent figure was obtained by the university's student newspaper Woroni through a freedom of information request in 2016.
"With the trade war going on right now between the US and China ... if that were to continue and the Chinese yuan were to depreciate, there could be a sudden exodus of Chinese students who simply can't afford their Australian education," author of the report, Salvatore Babones, said.
"[Financial exposure risks are] poo-pooed by the universities whenever they are brought up and I think they simply don't understand how extreme they are."
Rapid growth in Chinese enrolments in Australian universities had slowed dramatically in 2018 and was levelling off, the report said. It was not unreasonable to suggest taxpayers - universities' "ultimate sponsors" - would be left to pick up the tab "if their bets [went] sour".
More than 50 per cent of international students at Australian universities are estimated to be Chinese.
The report also identified Adelaide University, Queensland University, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of New South Wales, and the University of Sydney as being over-reliant on international students.
Chinese students' contributions to annual revenue was estimated to range from 13 per cent for Adelaide, and 23 per cent - or more than $534 million annually - for Sydney. The University of Melbourne was also identified as high exposure, although confidence in its estimates was "very low".
The Australian National University recently changed its admissions process to ensure "students are not lost in a crowd, but are part of a learning community of outstanding students from diverse backgrounds".
"Our reputation as one of the great universities of the world is built in part on our international character," a spokesman said.
The report said preparatory programs, including those at the university's ANU College, allowed international students to circumvent English requirements. ANU College could also be easily mistaken for a branch of the university only.
Instead, it was run in partnership with Study Group Australia, a "for-profit company that has every interest in taking students' money", Mr Babones said. Costs for a minimum 20 weeks of study were quoted as $10,650 plus fees in the report.
Its claims that international students could enter the ANU College program with an International English Language Testing System score of 4.0 were incorrect, the university spokesman said.
Students needed a score of 6.5 or equivalent to access the university's academic programs, or 5.0 to access the English preparation program.
"Students must successfully pass up to 30 weeks of study in this preparation program to reach the equivalent of a [score of] 6.5, and to be able to apply for our courses," he said.
The University of Sydney rejected similar claims about its Taylors College foundation program. Although students could gain entry to it with a score of 5.0, most academic courses required a score of between 6.5 and 7.5.
"We appreciate diversification of income is important for any large organisation which is why we have an income diversification strategy," a spokeswoman said.
"We've already seen an increase in students from the US and Canada and we're working to increase the number of our students from India and Southeast Asia."
Diversification was a "code word" for recruiting from India used by several universities and organisations, Mr Babones said. The country was too poor to serve as a viable alternative to China.
Higher education generated $35 billion and 240,000 jobs for Australia's economy in 2018, and was forecast to contribute more than $37 billion by the end of the 2018-2019 period.
The British-based Centre for Global Higher Education predicted Australia would leapfrog the UK to become the world's second most popular destination for international students.
"We offer a quality higher education in Australia and international students are voting with their feet by coming here," Minister for Education Dan Tehan said.
"We should be proud of that fact."
The government was working with the university sector to strengthen English language requirements for international students, Mr Tehan said.