Australian universities double down on international students


The six year boom in international students has seen enrolment numbers nationally almost double to 712,000 as at June 2019:

This boom has been driven by three primary source nations – China, India and Nepal – who together account for just over half of Australia’s international students:


As documented recently by Associate Professor Salvatore Babones in his research paper for the Centre for Independent Studies, Australian universities’ concentration of international students is unparalleled. Australia has roughly 2.5 times the number of international students per 100,000 population of second-placed United Kingdom and around three times Canada:

With this background in mind, The Australian reports that ongoing strong growth in international student enrolments is offsetting the decline in domestic students at Australia’s universities:


The number of students starting courses in Australian universities grew by 2.3 per cent last year compared with the previous year, the ­latest federal government data shows, but the growth is being supported by international ­students.

Figures for domestic students only show that the number of commencing students fell by 1.3 per cent last year.

The data, released on Monday, also showed that the number of students starting bachelor degree courses last year was 1.1 per cent down on 2017…

The total domestic load at universities (for all enrolled students) fell marginally by 0.1 per cent last year, but for all students was up 3.5 per cent, illustrating that Australian universities are only growing because of increased inter­national students numbers.

Last year, 1,562,520 students (including international students and those studying part-time) were enrolled in higher education.

The concentration of international students was already extreme at 26.7% on average, with Salvatore Babones recommending it be halved to meet world’s best practice:

Measured on a per capita basis, Australia now hosts more international students than any other major country in the world…

No public university in the entire United States even comes close to these concentrations of international students. Only one, the University of California at San Diego, has more than half of the international student concentrations of Sydney, Melbourne, and ANU. If Australian public universities were included in an international student league table alongside American public universities, the Australians would fill all 20 slots at the top of the table and 31 of the top 33.

Which all raises the question: how much is too much?…

If the most successful American public universities are any guide, when it comes to international students, 10 per cent adds diversity to the student body, 15 per cent is the maximum reasonable level, and 20 per cent represents internationalisation gone wild. In Australia, the average level of international students across the entire university system is 26.7 per cent. By any reasonable standard, that’s too high.


Going by these latest enrolment figures, the concentration of international students at Australia’s universities is going to get worse before it gets better.

About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.