Australia faces increasing competition for international students

By Leith van Onselen

While Australia may currently be a preferred destination for international students, as evidenced by nearly half a million student visas on issue at the end of 2018:

Competition for international students is heating-up, both from competitor countries and the source nations.

For example, the Canadian Government is planning to expand its presence overseas in a bid to significantly raise the number of international students studying in Canada from 572,415 in 2018:

The vast majority of foreign students have been coming from India and China, while recent years have seen surges from countries with fast-growing economies like Vietnam.

Officials from universities, colleges and the federal government are now in the early stages of developing an “aligned” strategy that will broaden campaigns in other parts of the world… in places with expanding economies and large populations of young people, like Colombia and parts of Africa…

In 2000, federal numbers show there were 122,665 valid study permits in Canada — a number that hit 572,415 last year for an increase of 467 per cent. Numbers compiled by Universities Canada say full-time international student enrolment at universities rose by about 15 per cent across Canada between 2017 and 2018…

Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, said… immigration policy changes in Canada have helped it compete with other countries in attracting the world’s increasingly mobile post-secondary students. The policies, she added, have sped up visa processing times, permitted foreign students to work in Canada while they study and improved a graduate’s chance of obtaining permanent residency.

Meanwhile, Australia’s biggest source market – China – is increasing investment in its own universities and lifting its standards, according to University of NSW Professor, Ian Jacobs:

“They are getting more universities, and those are getting much better quality, very rapidly,” said Professor Jacobs. “The Chinese government understands education is everything if they are going to be the high tech country they aspire to be.”

“My assessment [is] over a 10-year period, [Chinese students] will gradually decrease. We are already starting to see a slight decrease in the number of undergraduate students from China as the opportunities increase.

As China’s economy slows, and its interest rates fall, it may also be forced to protect its currency via capital controls, which may eventually tip into the trade account with limits on both students and tourists.

Regardless, the above factors alone should make it increasingly difficult for Australia to maintain current student inflows, let alone increase them.

Another headwind is that the prestige value of an Australian degree has arguably been tarnished.

That is, in order to attract, year in and year out, increasing numbers of international students, universities have dropped standards by going easy on English language skills, as well as passing low-performing students.

Indeed, at the start of the year, the Victorian Government called for a review of entry requirements into Australia’s universities after evidence emerged that international students with poor English language proficiency were eroding education standards and placing undue strain on lecturers and staff.

Immediately afterwards, academics inundated Fairfax with stories about how they had been forced to lower teaching standards and pass struggling international students in order to maintain the foreign student trade, which mirrored previous reports (e.g. here, here and here).

To add insult to injury, the international student association also demanded greater regulation of overseas migration agents amid widespread cheating on English tests to gain access to Australian universities.

Ultimately, Australia has no natural competitive advantage in education. Instead, the key drawcard to studying in Australia is that it represents a reliable pathway to Australian residency, as well as employment.

The Australian’s Judith Sloan encapsulated the issue with the following comment in 2017:

To sell overpriced degrees to overseas students, it is necessary to be able to offer the byproduct of permanent residence for graduates. Any reduction in the immigration numbers would make that sell quite a bit harder. No doubt, there was a bit of wink-and-nod between the government and the vice-chancellors on this topic.

Put another way, if the incentive of gaining permanent residency was removed, then Australia’s attractiveness as a place to study would evaporate and the international student trade would collapse.

This was more or less confirmed recently by the lobby group representing foreign students in Australia – the Council for International Students in Australia (CISA) – which admitted that the primary objective of many international students isn’t to gain a qualification, but to migrate permanently to Australia:

The Council for International Students in Australia said foreign potential students were attracted to Australia by the possibility of migrating here…

The national president of CISA, Bijay Sapkota, said… “For people coming from low socio-economic backgrounds there has to be a value proposition. If they go home they will not get value. So there has to be a possibility of immigration.”

It’s my firm view that Australia universities are primarily in the business of selling permanent residency, rather than education. And with it, Australia is importing a host of deleterious side effects, including the chronic population pressures being experienced in the major cities, lower wage growth, as well as the collapse in university standards.

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Latest posts by Leith van Onselen (see all)


  1. Australia’s tertiary education Ponzi scheme will soon go the way of the dodo. None of the heroes who have designed this white elephant have been keeping an eye on the trajectory of tertiary education in other nations to our north.

    Australia’s share of GDP spent on education has plummeted from about 6% in the 1980s to hovering around 5% now after dipping as low as 4.5%.

    Several SE Asian countries also spent about 5% of GDP. The big difference is that in these countries you can build equivalent infrastructure for 70% less in real terms and salaries are 25% that of Australia. Now that many of the car and other manufacturers from Japan, Korea, USA and China have located their industry in SE Asia this has vastly accelerated progress in tertiary education. Within a decade several universities in SE Asia will begin to surpass many of the Australian universities, especially for employment opportunities in the ASEAN region. Some universities in China are already there. Because it is a short hop skip and a jump to gain professional experience in an economy of almost 3 billion people that is expanding rapidly and being linked with high tech infrastructure (unlike Australia) where quality of life has increased in a spectacular way in single decade.

    The word is out that Australia has degraded the quality of its tertiary sector and cities rather than keeping them boutique. Ironically, the low standard of English accepted by our universities has backfired along with the absence of a manufacturing industry and key training grounds for graduates. Asian engineers want to head to the USA, Canada, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia or even the UK. English is the language of high tech and cutting edge science and those students and professionals who use it most effectively are cherry picked from international secondary schools where the students speak and write English with greater fluency at year 12 than most Australians – seriously. This is no accident. And we don’t get the cream of that crop – but the clown CEOs of Australian “overseas student market” could not give a stuff – it’s all about cash flow.

    Australia is now known as the country that’s easy to get into if you speak pigeon English (’cause it would be racist to have the same standards as Finland, Germany and Scandinavian countries where English is not even the first language). We are slack in developing English language communication skills, will pass anyone who can drag themselves to the complaints office and have stuff-all in the way of high tech industry that interests anyone who’s after a serious education – and not just a visa. In general, in the sausage factory degree mill subjects that UNSW specialises in, we’ve become the dumping ground for economic migrants who like the beach.

    Tech bust, mining bust, real estate bust, overseas education bust…What’s the next bubble – tulips and ostrich eggs?

    • Yep…Australia doesn’t get the cream of the Chinese crop anymore.
      These days you’re lucky if these little princlings even give an RA about education (their parent do…but do they)
      And what do we have to offer the best of the best if they do complete a top notch degree (say Electrical Engineering at UNSW…nothing shabby about that degree)…. crickets A degree like this is pointless and completely valueless if you don’t get immediately involved with a first class group of engineers doing cutting edge projects. What can we offer these foreign graduates (we don’t even have commercial jobs for our own Engineers although there are still some good defense gigs) …Bottom line is that we’ve educated them and they’re gone…we’ve done nothing but waste a valuable Engineering education on someone that’ll probably never work in Australia.
      But don’t worry, the word is getting out, so while the raw numbers of Chinese students might be peaking the more discerning engineering students are already finding their way into US, European and Asian Uni’s that still have strong industrial contacts. BTW the same applies to Aussie degrees in Physics and Chemistry and Biology.
      What can one say: Lee Kwan Yew had it right all along…. we are the White -Trash of Asia.

  2. Besides the English test, get foreign “students” to do a drug test:

    16 Apr 2019

    a drug addict who was in possession of knuckle dusters, heroin and an angle grinder when he was arrested

    Gurwinder Gill and Herdeep Singh were among a handful of men who robbed storage centres

    a third man charged, Navjinder Singh, 24, remains at large after previously failing to meet bail.

    He also admitted possessing heroin and ice.

    Far out! Get all foreign “students” to do a drug test after every semester and deport them when they fail the drug test. No way should lifelong drug addicts be imported.

      • You mean those three. One is 37, another is 31, and the third is 24.

        I bet at least one of them was on a student visa or a 457 visa.

        Instead of drug testing the unemployed, drug test the foreign “students”. At the very least, you will catch the smokers. We do not need more lung cancer patients – only give student visas to non-smokers.

  3. Great as my kids want to go to an aussie uni and not feel like a stranger in their own land.
    Fat chance though.
    Govt dont want it.
    Vcs dont want it
    So won’t happen. Australia well on the way to becoming the new Malaysia with ethnic tensions to match

    • You were sold out by the governments you elected. You are dumb and got conned. Now Australia is gone.

  4. some other trends of concern: decreasing value of a degree qualification as employees realise high marks don’t necessarily correlate with talent, hence, the rise of internships where the genuine assessment is done. Also, education is going online and the value of going to lectures is decreasing, particularly when the lecturer is average. I studied IT and the best learning occurred in the computer lab while doing assignments. I see a future where students watch lectures online given by superstar lecturers. The local university will be merely a collaboration space with, you’d hope, expert tutors who can help with assignments and add their real world experience.

    • That’s what I’ll be doing if it’s financially viable (and if they want to go). Why waste 3yrs doing a worthless degree that they give out to all who attend. I guess there’s some justice when those foreign students who do get degrees end up working at Dominos because their English is sh!te and their intellect isn’t much better.

      The downside will come when the Prog-Left start complaining that these people are being discriminated against and start calling for workforce quotas. Then country will really be up sh!t creek.

  5. reusachtigeMEMBER

    We really need to try and encourage more vibrant students via grants, scholarships and the offer of part-time jobs as they are great for the economy!

    • At this point, I give in. Let’s just give them housing benefits and living allowances to make them even more comfortable.

      At least this way, the end-game will arrive sooner.

  6. Linda LovelaceL 5

    Permanent residency or citizenship as the real end product of this fraud is pointless. The vast majority of these so called students as quite often is stated here are Asia’s dumbest. They are simply never going to get any jobs in either their field of study or jobs in general. Most dont even have a basic command of English. All they do is dwell in parrallel socities providing goods and services pandering to their tastes. They never mingle with locals. Unless these so called students albeit aussie citizen wannabees are uber rich to fund their life exitence here without having to work then i gather majority may just end up leaving to go home or to a better place elsewhere than Australia. Many will realise if they havent already that Australia is nothing but an economic illusion ….

  7. The Traveling Wilbur

    Dear deity of your choice. Did someone not have enough coffee this morning?

    There is a significant difference between Australia getting the less academically achieving students compared to what it used to get and Australia is not going to be able to sustain current numbers.

    Or is this just banging the drum stuff click bait.

    Numbers and dollars are just fine. If Brissy second tier bridging schools TESLA courses and unis are full, it’s all fine. And they are.
    Yes, the students are getting dumber and poorer, but that doesn’t affect tuition, tax or visa costs. (annecdata from those taking the tuition cash).

    And, does anyone really see Asia running out of dumb rich kids anytime soon? Really?

    • Linda LovelaceL 5

      And then what? Rich enough to get the degree. What about the next 40 years supporting themselves? Most come here with aim to stay not realising they wont get jobs. Im not sure that many are that super rich.

      • Not really about whether there’s enough for us – it’s whether there’s enough for the Chinese government to fill all the Chinese uni places. If they don’t have enough we’ll get none.

  8. The Traveling Wilbur

    When the ‘crane count’ of restaurant openings for pork soup related dishes starts to drop I’ll start to worry about this then.

    And fried chicken restaurants. Both of which I frequent regularly.

  9. What I think will be interesting is how China will decrease the number of outbound students. With improved domestic universities and the social credit system they can say now or will be able to in the very near future that they have quality institutions at home (that’s the carrot) so no need to go overseas to a dangerous (and possibly racist or anti Chinese) foreign country/culture, and with the social credit system they have their stick to outright ban any number of potential students from going. In future I’m sure Chinese foreign students will only be a trusted few with high social credit scores from reliable families who are sent to specific courses to fill certain knowledge gaps or to confirm education standards (or lack thereof)

    Chinese foreign student game over and our elites are too dumb and lazy to adjust

    • Soon only those who cannot be admitted by the Chinese unis will come because they will still be admitted by many Strayan unis.

      And why would the Chinese government want to stop them from leaving?

      • You seem to think that we’re getting the bottom 20% of Chinese HS students, that’s not the case at all. I’d guess that all Chinese students accepted to Australian universities are in the top 50% for High School achievement. Trouble for us is that top 50% is still a huge number.
        With this in mind would China really want to permanently loose so many above Median students to other countries…think about what happens to the Median if you do this over a long enough time frame
        In the new world order: No other country wants to take your bottom 25% (you’re stuck with them), and every country is competing to attract the top 25% so it’s what happens around the median that ultimately important.

      • If no other country wants your bottom 25%, then if people at the median go, that bottom 25% grows as a proportion of the population, which seems pretty far from ideal.
        China’s main advantage was and is a large pool of labour, which is now shrinking. Why on earth would they want to speed that process?

      • Roughly 40% sit the entrance exam – gov’t target is 50% as unfavourable demographics mean places are going to waste.

    • Agree 100%. Have had same view for while. Only thing that I did not take in consideration was the social credit tool and you nailed it.
      Chinese can turn the tap off in an instant and I think it is just a matter of time.

      The only reason I can think of why China still allows lot of the kids (and will always allow some %) to turn up here is that lot of these “students” don’t bring much money as they have to work to survive in Oz. It also works well for the Chinese Gov as they have fewer unemployable people to worry about at home – reduces the risk of mass riots.

  10. Not in the short term. Not at all. There is LESS competition from Canada/US/UK for geopolitical reasons. Meng Whenzhou for Canada, new Cold War for the US, and brexit for Britain

    This all adds up to LESS competition NOT more for the dominant group of international students being Chinese.

  11. DingwallMEMBER

    Well at least all those students are keeping those assignment writers deep in work ….. between their Ubering and barista work….maybe it depends on the quality of the writers where all the students pile in to.

  12. Australian universities have turned to shite. I know from personal experience that these foreign “students” are mainly idiots. If they go somewhere else, that would be great.

    • Have? It was pretty obvious the direction that they were headed 20 years ago. It is just the process has speeded up in the last 10 years. When I was in university (late 90s), the universities bent over backwards just to accommodate international students. The academic staff used to tell me how the standards were dropping. When I was in China a few people told me this about the students that study overseas:
      1. The really smart ones go to the US
      2. The rich ones go to Europe
      3. The rest go elsewhere

  13. When I did hard uni exams all the international students got considerably more time in exams and got basically unlimited www access. I had to pay extra as i was a local student if I wanted more www.

    So they did not do the same degree as I did as they had more time to do exams

  14. Hey, look on the bright side. As Asia gets richer young people won’t want to migrate here anyway. There’ll soon be a lot of suitable accommodation for all our homeless as universities struggle to recruit fee paying OS students and need the government to step in and rent/ buy their student accommodation for social housing. Everybody wins. Happy Easter to all.