Why international students perform so poorly


According to the most recent Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS), only 57.7% of overseas graduates living in Australia were working full-time in 2021, compared to 78.5% of domestic student graduates:

Graduate employment

In 2022, the median full-time wage for overseas graduates was only $60,000, well below the $68,000 median full-time pay for domestic graduates:

Graduate salaries

A new study by Feifei Han at the Australian Catholic University showed that international students studying in Australia are more likely to engage in “surface learning” rather than “deep learning”, with poor English language proficiency a major barrier.

The study suggests that international students are more likely to focus on reproducing the right answers in a formulaic manner (i.e. rote learning) rather than striving to understand the ideas and concepts behind the content.

Deep learners, on the other hand, take greater initiative, critically analysing sources and commenting on the learning and inquiry process.


The study’s international students were mostly from Asian countries, specifically China, India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

International students were also less likely than domestic students to collaborate with their peers during their studies.

Author Dr Han stated that one of the main reasons for their poorer performance was a lack of English proficiency.


“For instance, when lecturers talk too fast, international students may not be able to fully comprehend. Or when a slide has dense information, their slow reading speed may not be able to cope”, she said.

None of this is surprising and extends to the ‘skilled’ migration system more broadly.

The Productivity Commission’s 2016 Migrant Intake into Australia report noted “the fundamental importance of strong English-language skills for an immigrant’s integration and wellbeing in Australia” and explicitly recommended “significant reforms within the current system” and “‘raising the bar’ by shifting to a universal points test while tightening entry requirements relating to age, skills and English-language proficiency”.


Several studies then revealed that the majority of freshly arrived skilled migrants are working in positions well below their reported skill level.

Based on 2016 Census data, the Australian Population Research Institute (APRI) conducted research revealing that most newly arrived ‘skilled’ migrants (those who arrived between 2011 and 2016) were unable to secure professional jobs.

Only 24% of skilled migrants from Non-English-Speaking-Countries were employed as professionals in 2016, compared to 50% of skilled migrants from Main English-Speaking-Countries and 58% of the same age Australian-born graduates.


The findings of APRI were supported by a 2017 study done by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, which revealed that 53% of skilled migrants in Western Australia were working in lower-skilled occupations than they were before relocating to Australia.

According to an Adelaide University study of 1700 skilled migrants in South Australia, 53% felt they were not using their skills and abilities, and 44% were working in a job that was not listed on their visa application. 15% were also out of work.

The November 2021 issue of Engineers Australia’s own industry magazine, Create, showed nearly half of all migrant engineers are unemployed, with another third working in professions that require less education.


A 2022 CEDA report showed over one-quarter of Australia’s skilled migrants work in professions below their qualification level, with migrant accountants, civil engineers, and cooks among those least likely to find job in their specified occupation.

CEDA noted that many ‘skilled’ migrants were instead driving taxis and Ubers.

Finally, IFM Investors chief economist, Alex Joiner, posted the below chart on Twitter last month showing how labour force participation rates are much higher, and unemployment rates lower, for migrants from “main English-speaking countries” (MESC) than “Other than main English-speaking countries” (OTMESC):

Migrant labour force participation and productivity

The evidence shown above demonstrates unequivocally why English-language competency should be front-and-centre of Australia’s skilled migrant and student intakes.

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.