For the last two decades, Australia's universities have been surfing the China wave. They now enrol roughly 140,000 Chinese students, 10 times as many as 2002.
At least seven universities depend on Chinese students for more than 10 per cent of their total revenues: Sydney, Melbourne, ANU, Adelaide, UNSW, Queensland and UTS. That's not 10 per cent of tuition. That's 10 per cent of everything.
These statistics aren't published by the unis themselves. They're based on research for a new report published by the Centre for Independent Studies: The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities.
In this report, I've attempted the most comprehensive analysis to date of Australian universities' addiction to Chinese student money. But none of my figures include students in so-called "foundation" programs, the non-degree courses that universities use to feed international students into their regular degrees. These programs are the ticking time bombs of Australian higher education. And virtually no data are published on their size or performance.
Foundation programs are usually run at arm's length from the university itself, often by pro-profit companies that partner with universities. Although some foundation programs can serve legitimate student needs, they also serve as alternative admissions streams for international students who can't pass the usual English language tests.
For example, the University of Sydney advertises in large-font text on its website: "If you're unable to meet the minimum academic requirements for undergraduate study, the University of Sydney Preparation Programs could be your ticket to study with us." These programs are run by Taylor College, which is a 50-50 joint venture between the university and the for-profit education provider Study Group. The standard program runs $34,300 plus fees for a 40-week course.
The University of Sydney ordinarily requires that international students attain a minimum score of 6.5 (half-way between a "good user" and a "competent user" of the language) on the IELTS English language test for direct admission, but students can gain admittance through a Taylor College preparatory program with a minimum IELTS score of 5.0 ("modest user" with "partial command of the language").
Taylor College advertises that 95 per cent of University of Sydney Foundation Program students "received offers to the University of Sydney", which suggests that nearly all students who request an offer, receive one.
The University of Melbourne's website similarly reassures international students that "If you don't meet requirements, there are other pathways for entry to Melbourne undergraduate degrees".
The ANU offers an alternative pathway for international students that allows them to gain admission with a IELTS score of just 4.0 (a "limited user" of the language who is "not able to use complex language") on individual bands.
The ANU website specifically advertises that "No additional IELTS is required to progress to the ... ANU Access English course". Like Sydney's programs, the ANU's are administered by Study Group, trading under the potentially confusing name "ANU College".
The University of Adelaide's English-language foundation programs trade under the similarly confusing name "University of Adelaide College". They're actually run by the private company Kaplan Higher Education.
Kaplan advertises that due to their "unique partnership with the University of Adelaide, all our foundation studies graduates are guaranteed entry to their choice of the many degrees on offer."
At UNSW, the Foundation Studies website leaves international students in no doubt that "International students who do not satisfy the entry requirements for an undergraduate degree can undertake a Foundation Studies program. You are guaranteed a place in your chosen undergraduate degree at UNSW on completion."
The University of Queensland offers international students with low IELTS scores "package offers" that "include English language studies at UQ-ICTE and a conditional offer of admission to a UQ program".
At UTS, international students can make up for low IELTS results by completing courses at UTS Insearch, a fully-controlled external company, or even at partner institutions in six countries: China, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and Nepal.
The widespread provision that students who complete foundation programs need not re-sit their English language exams is ripe for abuse.
Requiring students to re-sit external exams (rather than demonstrate English proficiency through class grades) would hold students, teachers, unis and external program administrators accountable.
By marketing reduced-standard pathways to underprepared international students, Australian unis can seem to be selling places.
A standards-first approach would apply the same criteria to the graduates of paid preparatory programs as they do to all other applicants.
Universities' addiction to Chinese student money does not end with foundation programs. But it starts there. The campaign to bring good sense to our international education industry should start there, too.
Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies and an associate professor at the University of Sydney