THE push to expand the Gold Coast’s education sector has been given a major shot in the arm with the city’s three universities taking a unified approach to attract a bigger share of the Australian market.

The initiative is being led by Study Gold Coast, a city council and industry-funded organisation that has just been rebranded and relaunched under new CEO Shannon Willoughby.

And China, which accounts for almost a third of the more than 500,000 foreign students in Australia, has become the initial focus.

“The Chinese are showing a lot of interest in sending their children to the Gold Coast,” says Willoughby, who has just returned from a trade mission to China with a team headed by Mayor Tom Tate.

“They have money to spend and they are looking at investing here as well.”

Willoughby says education is part of a strategy that will deliver benefits to the broader Gold Coast economy and the rebranding that aligns Study Gold Coast with the City of Gold Coast gives the strategy the impetus it needs.

“The power of being attached to or associated with a local government comes with great trust overseas; it’s very important,” she says.

“Tourism, education and investment work hand in hand, and the flow-on effect from education is significant. I think we are now starting to realise that if we start working together there’s a bigger picture at play.

“We can see good opportunities in China, but I think we have to really start working harder because education hasn’t been a major focus for the Gold Coast over the past 20 or 30 years.

“We have to do some really targeted marketing in selected areas in China.”

Study Gold Coast has added to its marketing arsenal through a “young fresh modern mobile friendly website”, and social media channels to connect directly with students.

“We are setting a new agenda through our social media channels, which is going to be massive for us because it speaks directly to students,” says Willoughby.

Since she was appointed CEO in March, Willoughby has restructured Study Gold Coast and raised the profile of the organisation, whose role is to promote the Gold Coast as a study destination.

Over the last 18 months, Study Gold Coast has changed its funding model with half its budget coming from government and the rest from the education industry.

It is also the first time that the Gold Coast’s three universities (Griffith, Bond and Southern Cross) and Gold Coast TAFE have worked collaboratively and collectively for the cause of the local sector.

The universities also have agreed to share data around Gold Coast education for the first time.

“By March or April next year we hope to have figures on what are our top five disciplines, top five international countries – where they are coming from and how long they are staying,” says Willoughby.

“We can then calculate the worth of the education industry to the Gold Coast. This has never been done before.”

Study Gold Coast has 60 members, including the major universities, registered training organisations, schools and English-language colleges. In the past year it has launched a campaign in China and the Middle East targeting students looking to study offshore.

The Gold Coast currently hosts about 25,000 university students, with 7000 of those from overseas.

While education has become a major economic platform for the Gold Coast in recent years, it still faces stiff competition from major learning destinations in Sydney, Melbourne and even Adelaide. Most cities have their own Study organisation, with funding varying from state to state.

Bond University Vice Chancellor Tim Brailsford has welcomed the unified approach to promoting the Gold Coast as a study destination.

“Education plays a critical role in the cultural fabric of our society and is a conduit through which the Gold Coast can engage with the global community,” Brailsford says.

“We need Study Gold Coast to be a strong voice and provide a unified perspective on why and how the Gold Coast is an attractive study destination.

“It is important that Study Gold Coast lead the promotion of study opportunities across all of our educational sectors.”

Southern Cross University Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Lee also sees benefits in boosting university participation rates among Gold Coasters.

“The participation rate in higher education in the Gold Coast is lower than the national average and Southern Cross University have invested strongly in the development of its Southern Gold Coast campus and have provided a new suite of courses to meet this growing demand,” he says.

The most recent figures show that 41.1 per cent of 2011 Gold Coast school students went to university, compared with 45.3 per cent of Brisbane school students.

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