KESHA WEST, REPORTER: For the last two decades Australia has hit the jackpot when it comes to international student dollars. Hundreds of thousands of students, mostly from Asia, have flooded the country's universities and educational institutions. At its peak a few years ago, international students made up around 30 per cent of university students. In some individual universities, that number was more like 60 per cent.
SEAN GALLAGHER, UNITED STATES STUDIES CENTRE, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY: Australian universities have come to rely on this very rich and valuable source of revenue to underwrite Australian university operations.
KESHA WEST: But is all that starting to slip through Australia's fingers.
SEAN GALLAGHER: 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.
KESHA WEST: The first crisis to hit the country's education industry was the bad press surrounding the mistreatment of Indian students following the violent attacks against young Indian students in 2008 and 2009.
(Excerpt from Indian news report)
INDIAN NEWS REPORTER: It seems that there has been another racist attack or at least a hate crime perpetrated against another Indian.
KESHA WEST: But that tarnishing of Australia's reputation wasn't the only problem for the industry. According to a new report by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, tighter visa restrictions and a high dollar have worked to make Australian degrees less attractive abroad.
At the same time, the global economic downturn has prompted cash strapped universities in America, Europe and Britain to start working aggressively for their share of the education export market, in particular the Asian market.
SEAN GALLAGHER: 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.
KESHA WEST: And the competition is not just coming from the west. Asia is fast becoming an education hub. And analysts agree it's only a matter of time before the Asian universities, in particular those in China, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong, rival the world's best.
FAZAL RIZVI, MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY: You cannot look past Singapore. Singapore has four universities, all of them as good as anything that Australia has got. So as a result, Singaporean students quite often look to their own universities before they look to overseas universities.
KESHA WEST: Tony Chang is president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The university was recently ranked the top university in Asia.
TONY CHANG, HONG KONG UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY: We are very international. You know, we use English in our curriculum. Our academics are mostly international, western. We found that international students, for example from East Asia, Europe starting to be from even the US and Canada, the interest to come to Asia, because of the economy and in Asia, in particular China.
KESHA WEST: And like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and in particular, China, is investing huge sums of money in higher education.
SEAN GALLAGHER: What China is doing, it's doing several things in particular to ramp up the quality of education it has at home. Yes, they've been investing in a select group of universities and pumping in billions of dollars to quickly ramp them up to sort of world-class standard.
They're 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.
KESHA WEST: India in comparison is hoping to become the global go-to place for IT education.
FAZAL RIZVI: One of its most famous higher education institutions is the IITs, the Indian Institutes of Technology. From what I've read India is trying to more than double the number of IITs in a very short time.
KESHA WEST: But Melbourne University's Fazal Rizvi argues there are serious problems with the higher education system in India.
FAZAL RIZVI: India is putting in a huge amount of money, but you know there is a lot of debate in India whether that money is correctly targeted. What is not being invested all that much is in improving the quality.
So there is an issue about putting money in 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.
KESHA WEST: Australia's universities are ranked among some of the best in the world and as a result they'll continue to attract large numbers of international students. But to counter the growing competition from the United States, Britain and increasingly the Asian universities themselves, analysts warn Australia's institutions need to pull up their socks.
SEAN GALLAGHER: If you look at the centre of gravity for higher education globally, it is rapidly moving towards Asia and particularly emerging Asia. That's where Australian universities need to start to hard-wire, to embed themselves into China, to have a physical presence there. And they need to start thinking about how to do that now.