International student lies, damn lies, and rental statistics


By Salvatore Babones, Associate Professor at Sydney University and author of the book, “Australia’s Universities, Can They Reform?”.

Australia needs an honest debate on international students. Peter Dutton can make that happen.

Australia’s 2025 election campaign kicked off this week with the Treasurer’s budget speech and the opposition leader’s reply. And both parties put international student numbers on the agenda.

Labor’s Treasurer Jim Chalmers pledged to “limit how many international students can be enrolled by each university based on a formula, including how much housing they build.”

The Liberal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton responded with a pledge to “reduce excessive numbers of foreign students studying at metropolitan universities to relieve stress on rental markets in our major cities, promising to “work with universities to set a cap on foreign students.”

At last: the game is afoot.


I am no opponent of internationalization, or of immigration. I’m an immigrant myself. But there’s a difference between internationalization and exploitation.

Internationalization is ensuring that classes include students from diverse backgrounds in order to inject diverse perspectives and foster intercultural experiences.

Exploitation is running entire onshore courses specifically for international students, often as the price they must pay to access Australia’s low-wage labor market for convenience store clerks and Uber Eats drivers.


When I arrived in 2008, Australia already had the most internationalized university system in the world. There had been a ten-year run-up in international student numbers to globally unprecedented levels. But things were only about to kick into high gear.

Since 2008, the number of international students at Australia’s public universities has doubled. In 2022 (the latest year for which data are available) Australian public universities were 30% international by student load. The numbers were 24% for undergraduate students and 48% for postgraduate students.

To put these numbers into perspective the single most internationalized public university in the entire United States (the University of Illinois) is only 23% international.


That’s right: the Australian system as a whole is more international than the most international public universities in America.

And that was 2022, when enrolments were still depressed by the COVID hangover. In 2023, international “higher education” numbers surged 22% in Australia.

Historically, public universities have comprised roughly 90% of the higher education sector. So it is very likely that Australian public university international enrolments increased by a further one-fifth in 2023.


If that is the case, and if any increase at all continued in 2024, then it is almost certain that more than one-third of all students at Australian public universities are international students. And that doesn’t even include the children of permanent residents or New Zealanders, who count as “domestic” in the statistics.

As a rough estimate, it is likely that no more than 60% of all students at Australian public universities are actually Australian citizens.

Into these facts wades the Property Council of Australia with a “myth busting report” claiming that international students are not to blame for Australia’s rental housing crisis. The PCA demonstrates that:

  • Only 4% of renters are international students
  • Only 9% of apartment renters are international students
  • Only 27% of Australian suburbs have international students accounting for greater than 1% of all rentals

This, in a housing market where the nationwide rental vacancy rate is just 0.7%.

According to these figures, if all international students were to suddenly leave Australia, apartment vacancy rates would rise to thirteeen times their current levels.


Of course, if you happen to live in the 73% of Australia where international student numbers are less than 1%, the problem might just be manageable. But for those of us who happen to live in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth instead of in Albany, Bourke, Dubbo, Mildura, or Cape Tribulation, international student concentrations of 9 percent or more seriously warp the apartment rental market.

According to the PCA’s own data, capital city rental markets have been swamped by international students. And when it comes to Australians’ own children looking for rentals — in the same university suburbs where international students want to rent — the competition is fierce, and direct.

BUT, we are told … international education is Australia’s third-largest export, surpassed by only iron and coal, contributing $36.4 billion to the Australian economy in 2022-2023 — and thus more than $40 billion today. If only.


This figure is arrived at by combining “an average spend estimate from Tourism Research Australia … supplemented by the addition of the total expenditure on course fees.”

That is to say: it is based on the fantastical model that a typical international student saves up the full cost of tuition, housing, meals, and incidentals, transfers it to an Australian bank, and then lives on that money for the duration of stay in Australia.

This may be true for a small number of elite university students. But university students make up only 45% of the international student total, and most of those are non-elite.


Just watch the 2019 Four Corners special Cash Cows to find out how things really work at a typical university, and then remember that most international students are not even in universities, but in low-level vocational and English-language courses.

The idea that all (or even a substantial portion) of the money spent by these students is transferred from abroad, rather than earned in Australia, is flatly ridiculous.

To see that, just remember the uproar that broke out in 2020 when Scott Morrison refused to extend JobKeeper and JobSeeker to international students. Most international students in Australia work very hard, but the fact is that they come to Australia primarily to work, not to study.


The tuition they are required to pay is simply part of the cost of their work visas.

“But Salvatore,” you say, “international students are only allowed to work part-time.” Sure. International students are currently allowed to work:

  • 24 hours a week in regular employment, when classes are in session
  • Unlimited hours during semester breaks (note: Australian universities are typically in session only 26 weeks a year)
  • Unlimited hours if they are master’s or PhD research students

In addition:

  • The spouses of master’s students can work unlimited hours
  • Students can earn unlimited self-employment income
  • Much international student employment is in the informal sector, and not properly reported

In short, the entire international student industry is, in essence, a giant immigration scam.


I’m not a xenophobe. I benefit greatly from the international student fees paid to the University of Sydney. I am not an Australian citizen, I have no children attending Australian universities, and I can afford to out-compete international students for scarce Sydney rental space.

My biggest competitor in the rental market isn’t international students; it’s AirBnB.

I am a data-driven social scientist who has compiled the numbers on Australia’s international education industry and summarized them in a book and several published papers. You can find the book on Amazon at:


I got involved in this issue because all around me I see lies, lies, and more lies. Universities lie; trade associations lie; government ministers lie; the real estate industry lies; immigration agents lie; everyone is lying. And lies do not make a solid foundation for good public policy formation.

Now, finally, the Hon. Jim Chalmers has injected international education into the national policy debate, and the Hon. Peter Dutton has picked up the gauntlet. It’s time to hash this out.


Australia has the most international university system in the world; whatever the country decides to do, no one can reasonably accuse it of xenophobia.

A reduction of 50% in Australia’s international student intake would still leave it the most international system in the world, and that’s never going to happen.

We’re only having this debate because international student numbers have become an issue in Australia’s never-ending housing debate. So be it. It’s better to have the debate for the wrong reasons than never to have it at all. But let’s have it.


Australia has a deeply mendacious system for international education. I hope that debate will bring exposure, and exposure will bring improvement.

If the Leader of the Opposition sticks to his guns, maybe we can talk this through. The next election is probably a year away. That’s just about enough time to cut through all the lies and get things right.