Why international student caps are sound policy


Higher education commentator, Andrew Norton, supports changing international student migration rules and education provider requirements to address issues like “dodgy” colleges, inadequate student preparation, student poverty, and permanently temporary migration.

However, Norton has taken aim at the federal government’s announced caps on international student numbers down to a course.

Norton claims that capping numbers is a “bad move”, as it may not align with Australia’s skills needs. He also suggests that international students should follow their own interests and career plans, and that they should not be encouraged to take fields with placement bottlenecks, such as health.

“The caps will face all the problems I have identified with bureaucratic allocation of domestic student funding”, Norton says.


“Because numbers will be allocated between universities and courses according to a politician or bureaucrat’s view of where students should enrol, rather than where students want to enrol, actual enrolments are likely to be well below the capped level”.

I strongly disagree with Norton’s view as it does not take into account the experience of local students, which should be the priority of policy.

As The AFR’s Jennifer Hewett noted on Monday, many local students have been forced into classes with large numbers of foreign students, degrading their experiences:

“The universities’ arguments for greater nuance in limiting numbers are undermined by their willingness to allow some courses such as IT and business to have become dominated by the numbers of international students”, Hewett wrote.


“While international students doing IT courses can fill a gap in some of the massive skill shortages in burgeoning areas like cybersecurity, the imbalance has led to an inferior experience for many domestic students”.

“That even includes some courses and tutorials being conducted in Mandarin, with little of the assumed benefits of supposedly a cross-cultural experience for either domestic or international students in universities that are extraordinarily large in global terms”.

“At the University of Sydney, for example, 46% of its students are now international”.

“Such universities rely on that money to fund research efforts and boost their international rankings – with the aim of attracting yet more overseas students”, Hewett wrote.

Sydney University Associate Professor Salvatore Babones noted similar in his 2021 book, “Australia’s Universities, Can They Reform“:

“Too often, and for too long, Australian governments have enabled university behaviours that broadly disserve Australia’s students and effectively defraud Australia’s taxpayers”, Babones wrote.


“Governments headed by both major parties have allowed (and even encouraged) universities to expand international student enrolments beyond all sound pedagogical limits”…

“They have applauded the universities’ international rankings success, despite its being achieved at the cost of degraded educational experiences for domestic students”…

“Instead of enabling the self interested behaviour of Australian universities, cutting a bit here and intervening a bit there, it should insist that universities deliver—first and foremost—a quality education for Australian domestic students”…

“Over the last two decades, many of Australia’s public universities have acted irresponsibly—in their bloated international student recruitment programs, in their unbridled pursuit of international rankings, in their don’t ask, don’t tell approach to Chinese influence, and in their outright exploitation of domestic students”, Babones wrote.

Salvatore Babones recommended that caps should be placed on international student numbers of 20% per course, 15% per university, and 10% from any one country:

“The Commonwealth should place pedagogically-appropriate limits on the number of international students Australian public universities are allowed to enroll”, Babones wrote in his book.


“The exact proportions might be determined by an expert committee, but best practice comparisons suggest something along the lines of a maximum 20% international students in any particular degree course, 15% for each university overall, and 10% from any one country”.

“Private universities might be allowed to offer courses primarily for the purpose of serving international students, but universities that receive public funds should not be competing in this space”.

“To the extent that international students enrich the educational environment for domestic students, they should be welcomed. But it should be a condition of Commonwealth funding that publicly-supported universities operate primarily in the public interest”, Babones wrote.

Ultimately, Australia’s public universities should exist first and foremost to serve the interests of Australian students, not international students. Their learning experience should be paramount.

Otherwise, what is the point of being Australian.

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.