Spending by foreign students fell almost 10 per cent to $16.4bn in 2010-11, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show.
Unsettling changes in policy, including rules for visas and skilled migration, and attacks on Indian students are cited among causes of weaker enrolments.
Tuition fees and spending on living costs by students reached $18bn in 2009-10, confirming education as a major export industry. The figure became a catch-cry of lobbyists and the media.
But the ABS yesterday released June-quarter figures showing a 9.2 per cent decline in earnings during 2010-11.
And the decline was accelerating in the second half of the year, said Sue Blundell of English Australia, the peak body representing English-language colleges.
Big falls in English-language college enrolments and offshore visa application are early signs of more general pain in the sector, which includes vocational training colleges and universities.
“With the continuing decline of the pipeline, any turnaround in the current trend is nowhere in sight,” Ms Blundell said. “Any changes in policy that might create an upturn in Australia’s competitiveness and attractiveness as a study destination, and therefore in offshore visa grants, will take time to have an impact.”
The education sector hopes a review of student visas by former NSW Labor minister Michael Knight will streamline the rules. The government’s response was expected “in coming months”, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has said.
Bryce Houghton, chief financial officer of Navitas, whose business feeds overseas students into Australian universities, said unstable policy was a key cause of the trouble. The strong dollar was a handicap at the margins.
Stephen Connelly, of the International Education Association of Australia, blamed the loss of export earnings on “a combination of kneejerk reactions by policy-makers and departments, and a lack of any strategic vision”.