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The Economic Gloom Won’t Stop Asian Parents

Asia has disappeared. That is, Asia is missing from much of the Western news coverage about slow economic growth, potential double-dip recessions, and high government debt. Recent analysis has focused almost exclusively on Europe and the United States.

What does that mean for Western universities? They risk overlooking an important fact: Asian students will keep flowing out of their home countries, seeking education. China and India will continue to be the world’s largest student exporters, as a result of a shortage of quality institutions at home and parents who place a strong value on education. As The Chronicle has just reported, visa applications from Indian students wanting to go to the United States went up 20 percent in fiscal 2011, and the number of offers from U.S. graduate schools to Chinese applicants went up 23 percent.

Many Asian parents don’t bother stashing cash in pension funds, instead trusting in the deeply held cultural values that will drive most children to take care of their parents when they are old. The children are the parents’ retirement plan, and an engineer is a better retirement plan than a street sweeper.

In the case of Chinese students, the government’s one-child policy has meant that not only do children have two parents focusing their resources on a single child, but they also have two sets of grandparents doing the same.

Those family members have been socking away savings for their children’s education for some time, and they will not keep the children at home just because Standard & Poors doesn’t like the political bickering in Washington, or because the Fed chairman has a sour outlook.

Governments, not just families, are supporting outbound Asian students. A recent British Council analysis of countries that have strong government scholarship programs for students at foreign universities included Thailand. Who knew? I didn’t.

In a visit in May to Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia, I met four students, from China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and India, who exemplified this outward flow. I was interviewing them to get a sense of why they went to Macquarie and how content they were with the choice. They turned into a focus group, showing why Australia, which is joined at the hip with Asia, remains a strong competitor among the English-speaking countries for Asian students.

The students’ conversation shifted, quickly, to immigration. Australia has tightened up the occupations that can be a pathway to permanent residence, but accounting is still on the short list. As a result, Chinese accounting majors risk swamping the international student population, despite the best efforts of many universities to build in diversity.

The students were largely content with their lives at Macquarie’s leafy, land-rich, suburban campus, which is dotted with sculptures due to the artistic passions of a former vice chancellor. The students found relatively well-paying jobs, from $11 to $20 an hour, and were allowed to work up to 20 hours a week, with unlimited hours during vacations. Housing was cheap:  Shared apartments ranged from $140 to about $200.

I asked them if they faced any racism, bringing the topic up because of the history of violent attacks on Indian students. I tried to encourage them to discuss the subject by mentioning incidents I had witnessed, such as a man ranting on a train about how foreigners should give up their seats to Australians.

But the students didn’t take the bait. They said they found Sydney safe and the people welcoming, although the Indian student said he would avoid certain Melbourne neighborhoods. The students took advantage of the university’s free or highly subsidized trips to such places as Manly Beach, Sydney’s signature Opera House, or the nearby Blue Mountains, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. Macquarie University, said Jack Yip, a student from Hong Kong, does “a stellar job in every way to help international students.”

When deciding where to study, Jack thought first about “the time and the money.”  The Australian undergraduate degree, typically completed in three years, was appealing. He wanted an international career, possibly in public relations. He believed his English, learned in the former British colony and now sharpened in Australia, would help him work globally and give him the fallback of a Hong Kong government job.

Mayank Kedia, a student from Kolkata, India, was working toward a master’s degree in finance, said he liked the support for work-life balance he noticed at Australian companies. But, he said, “In the long run I see myself heading back to my country. I can’t see myself being away from my family.”

Grace Yuan, from Shanghai, resented some Australian policies and fees, such as the $4,000 she might have to pay just to apply for the Australian equivalent of a U.S. green card. But she said she would love to live in Australia. Chinese companies expect employees to work long hours with no overtime, she said, and the thick crowds and heavy pollution in Chinese cities turned her off. Sani Halim, from Java, Indonesia, echoed that sentiment. “It was such a culture shock when I first came here,” she said. “It is so quiet.”

My conversation with the students ended, and we stepped outside in a hallway to snap a group picture. I’d gotten a glimpse of  the students’ motives, and the Australian competition for students that the other English-speaking countries face.

No one knows if the booming businesses in China and India will be the workhorses that pull the battered wagons of Western economies out of the mud. But in the meantime, Western universities may want to look East.

David Wheeler is an editor at large for The Chronicle.

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