Sydney Morning Herald

By Heath Gilmore

Education's ''cash cow'', the foreign student market, is being enticed to greener pastures.

A number of elite universities in the US, such as the University of California at Los Angeles and at Berkeley, are preparing to target Asia's best and brightest students, particularly the booming Chinese market.

The Australian higher education sector is increasingly worried that Chinese students, who contributed $3.8 billion to the economy last financial year, are beginning to look elsewhere. The International Education Association of Australia is predicting a fall of 100,000 in foreign student enrolments over the next year.

The Premier, Kristina Keneally, will join seven universities at the Shanghai World Expo today as part of a push to extol the virtues of studying in Australia.

The university sector is talking to Immigration Department officials about the government's new restrictions on the educational pathway to Australian residency for many foreign students, describing it as an ''overreaction''.

A number of leading vice-chancellors have scheduled meetings with the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, and the new Education Minister, Simon Crean, to voice concerns about the American threat.

''The government is slowly becoming aware of our fears,'' said Glenn Withers, chief executive of Universities Australia, which represents the sector.

''Things could change quickly unless we adapt quickly.''

Dr Sean Gallagher, the chief operating officer at the US Studies Centre, said the challenge to Australian universities was considerable, particularly from the universities on America's west coast.

In the past month UCLA has announced plans to lift the number of non-residential undergraduates from 5 per cent to as many as 20 per cent. The senate at Berkeley is considering an upper limit of 35 per cent non-resident students.

Dr Gallagher said this challenge coincided with a real and perceived decline among Asian students in the four pillars that had underpinned the Australian sector in the past: a quality education, a secure and safe environment, affordability and a pathway to a residential visa.

The attacks on Indian students and the claim that universities regarded them as ''cash cows'' had caused extensive damage and the rising Australian dollar was placing the country out of reach.

''Asian students are likely to be attracted by what American colleges can offer,'' he said. ''From outstanding education, to safe residential student communities, to first-class facilities, to an extraordinary network of influential alumni and the holding of a degree from a university with a global brand, the total package offered by the American universities is impressive.''