Michal Šesták
Michal Šesták

Search for students continues as currency affects numbers

Australian institutions look to lure English-language learners

The endless sunshine of Sydney’s Manly Beach, the rustic allure of Byron Bay, weekend trips into the countryside – there are few countries with a lifestyle that seems as appealing as that of Australia.

Like other English-speaking countries – and, increasingly, like some countries where English is not the first language – the land down under has become a magnet for foreign students, with about 550,000 enrolled there, according to the Australian government.

Yet while Australia remains one of the world’s most popular countries for overseas courses, with foreign students contributing 16 percent of total higher education revenue, the number of Czechs studying there has remained static in the past several years, according to specialists.

Overall during the 2000s, numbers increased about 15 percent, according to Australiaonline.cz, a privately owned agency for education institutions in Australia.

Michal Šesták, the agency’s managing director in Australia, said the “significant growth” was until 2008 and since then numbers have “continued at the same level.” The company estimates there are around 2,000 Czech students in Australia.

“The potential is enormous, but the strength of the Aussie dollar [is discouraging some students],” he said.

Overall, Australia has seen a decline in the number of foreign student arrivals since 2008/09, with numbers falling from China, India, Malaysia, Brazil and South Korea, the top five nations in terms of student visas granted.

While many young people from developing countries such as India and China who study abroad want to secure a foreign degree or permanent residency, for Czechs the key reason is to improve their English. For many, the English they learned at school is inadequate if they want to secure a job with an international dimension.

Karolína Korbová, 28, a schoolteacher hoping to change careers and find a position with a commercial agency in the private sector, will work on her English-language skills during a planned six-month stay in Sydney.

“For a commercial agency, you need very good English. Nearly every commercial agent has English,” she said. “I am looking at Sydney because for Czech people and Czech girls who are alone, it’s probably the best place.”

Although some decide the English they learned at school is lacking for the job market, Patrick Kolář, AustraliaOnline’s Czech Republic-based managing director, said better English teaching at home has restricted the growth in the number of Czechs studying abroad.

“There might have been growth [in numbers] because [Czechs] can afford it, but their English is getting better as they learn it at school. Ten years ago, no one spoke English,” he said.

AustraliaOnline recently held a series of fairs in major Czech cities to introduce potential students to Australian higher education institutions. Another organization, Alfa Agency, is running a series of similar events in May.

Living expenses an obstacle

With the Australian dollar having been described earlier this year as the world’s most overvalued currency, the costs of living in Australia are formidable: The website Numbeo estimates consumer prices, including rent, average 150 percent higher than in the Czech Republic.

This has made other English-language destinations such as Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, whose universities have been promoting themselves in the Czech Republic for a decade, more attractive.

A commentary from an official at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration noted last year that “current exchange rates and the visa waiver program are making U.S. educational opportunities an increasingly attractive alternative” to more commonly chosen destinations, such as those in Europe. In the 2010/11 academic year, 765 Czechs were studying in the United States.

Although the Australian dollar is particularly strong at the moment, Jun Craft, director of administration at InForum Education Australia in Southport on the country’s Gold Coast, said 80 percent of students worked while they were in Australia and therefore were paid in the local currency.

“The minimum wage is about Aus $16.05, which is about 320 Kč,” she said.

The number of foreign students in the Czech Republic is significantly larger than the number of Czechs studying abroad. In 2011, there were around 38,000 foreign students at Czech universities, four times the figure from a decade earlier.

Among the Czechs to have studied in Australia is Jan Hejhal, 23, who lived in Australia from September 2009 to April 2010, spending most of his time taking an English course in Byron Bay.

Since his return to the Czech Republic, he has enrolled in Trade and Business dealing with machinery bachelor’s degree course at the Czech University of Life Sciences.

He said whether young Czechs wanted to study abroad was influenced by whether they were “interested in getting a better job.”

“It means they need to speak English very well,” he said.

Hejhal earned money making sandwiches and driving a rickshaw during his time in Australia and said the latter job was particularly lucrative.

“There were people who were drunk, and they gave me a lot of tips,” he said.

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