According to reports in this morning’s papers, drawing on Monday’s ABS international trade figures, education is now Australia’s biggest services export, overtaking tourism by nearly $1 billion for 2007 ($12.5 billion vs $11.5 billion).
But as the ABS doesn’t follow tourists or students around counting how much they spend, both these figures are estimates of their expenditure while in Australia. The tourism figures are based on the International Visitor Survey, which asks departing international travellers various questions, including about their spending. It is an on-going survey.
The student data, by contrast, is updated much less regularly. It is based on the Survey of International Students Spending (pdf), last conducted in 2004-5, and updated according to the CPI.
Apart from timing issues, the main reason for doubting the international student spending estimate is that it appears to assume that all international student spending while in Australia is financed from overseas. In reality, many overseas students work while in Australia to finance their studies. They are supposed to limit employment to 20 hours a week during term, but that is hard to enforce, especially where students work multiple jobs or have jobs with little supervision, eg taxi driving (I could try claiming my taxi trip costs as ‘international student research’).
Whether deducting spending financed from within Australia from the education exports figure would bring it back below tourism I am not sure; and arguably some of the tourism is indirectly generated by international students, as family and friends come to visit them. But $12.5 billion in education-related exports is likely to be an upper estimate of how much international students really spend in Australia.