ABC Radio Australia

Australian universities, which once led the world in attracting international students, are beginning to lose ground to Asian institutions.

For the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of students, mostly from Asia, have flooded Australia's universities and educational institutions.

In it's peak, international students made up around 30 per cent of Australia's university students and in some individual universities that number was close to 60 per cent.

Sean Gallagher from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney says Australian universities now rely on the revenue generated by international students.

"Australian universities have come to rely on this very rich and valuable source of revenue to underwrite Australian university operations," he said.

But Dr Gallagher says universities may not be able to rely on this revenue for much longer.

"What we're seeing is this two decade boom is looking like it's coming to an end — that it's reached the top of its cycle," he said.

Australia's education boom slows

The first crisis to hit the country's education industry was the bad press surrounding the mistreatment of Indian students following violent attacks in 2008 and 2009.

And according to a report by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, tighter visa restrictions and a high dollar have also made Australian degrees less attractive abroad.

Dr Gallagher says recent global economic turmoil has also meant cash-strapped universities from around the world are competing aggressively for a share of the education export market.

"They're having to ramp up international students to make up budget holes that they have over there and effectively the US universities are looking like where Australian universities were 15 years ago in terms of the numbers of international students and the rate at which they're taking them on board," he said.

Asian universities to rival the world's best

Asian countries have also begun pumping billions of dollars into boosting the quality of their own educational institutions.

Professor in Education at the University of Melbourne, Fazal Rivzi, says it's only a matter of time before universities in Asia rival the world's best.

"You can not look past Singapore," he said.

"Singapore has four universities, all of them as good as anything that Australia has got, so as a result Singaporean students often look to their own universities before they look to overseas universities."

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Government is aiming to make the territory an education hub in order to attract students from outside the city to study and pay tuition there.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was recently ranked the top university in Asia.

The University's President, Tony Chan, says their curriculum has an international focus.

"We are very international, we use English in our curriculum, our academics are mostly international, well Western actually," he said.

"We've found that international students, for example from East Asia, from Europe, starting to be from even the US and Canada, they are interested in coming to Asia because of the economy in Asia and in particular China."

Investing in universities

Singapore, Japan and China are also investing huge sums of money in higher education.

Sean Gallagher from Sydney University's US Studies Centre says China is implementing a range of strategies to improve their universities.

"They have been investing in a select group of universities and pumping billions of dollars to quickly ramp them up to world class standard," he said.

"They are also inviting elite universities from elsewhere in the world and particularly from the United States to set up shop in China in partnership with leading Chinese universities.

"This is a real revolution and a game changer for higher education."

Meanwhile, India is hoping to become the global centre for IT education.

"One of its most famous higher education institutions is the IIT, the Indian Institute of Technology, from what I've read India is trying to more than double the number of IIT's in a very short time," Professor Chan said.

But Melbourne University's Professor Fazal Rizvi argues there are serious problems with the higher education system in India.

"India is putting in a huge amount of money, but there is a lot of debate in India about whether that money is correctly targeted," he said.

"What is not being invested all that much is improving the quality, so there is an issue about putting in money, but for what purpose?

"If the purpose is simply to build more universities to soak up the growing demand, well there are more universities but they're poor universities."

Australian institutions urged to improve

Australia's universities are ranked among some of the best in the world and as a result they are expected to continue to attract large numbers of international students.

But to counter the growing competition coming from the US, the UK and increasingly the Asian universities themselves, analysts warn Australia's institutions need to continue to improve.

Professor Gallagher says they need to improve the in-class and on-campus experience for international students, but crucially they must tap into East Asia.

"If you look at the centre of gravity for higher education globally, it is rapidly moving towards Asia and particularly emerging Asia," he said.

"That's where Australian universities need to start to hardwire to embed themselves into China to have a physical presence there and they need to start thinking about how to do that now."