International students contributed A$31.9 billion (£18 billion) to Australia’s economy last financial year, filling lecture halls and bankrolling research and construction on campuses across the country.
New figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that education exports increased by 14 per cent in 2017-18 as overseas enrolments surged past 800,000.
The body representing the nation’s universities said that foreign student numbers were at record levels, with its members hosting a large proportion of them.
“International education is a modern Australian success story, built from the ground up over six decades to become the nation’s third-largest export,” said Anne-Marie Lansdown, deputy chief executive of Universities Australia.
“The buck doesn’t stop with us. That A$32 billion flows on into the entire Australian economy, generating jobs, supporting wages and lifting living standards.”
The new figures have emerged amid controversy over international education, with Australia’s Labor opposition flagging a possible capping of foreign enrolments over concerns that overseas students are monopolising jobs and suffering exploitation in the workplace.
Critics say that limiting foreign students would amount to punishing the victims of workplace abuse while robbing reputable employers of willing applicants for jobs unpopular with locals.
Iain Watt, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney, said that the row could “seriously impact the whole industry”.
“A populism-driven debate on immigration and students is very bad news for international education,” he warned.
International education has surged in Australia in recent years, with confidential figures showing that some universities have more than doubled their overseas enrolments since 2014. A report last month by UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education found that the country may already have overtaken the UK to become the world’s second-biggest education destination.
However, many Australian higher education commentators are concerned that the sector is overly reliant on revenue from foreign students, with some universities accelerating overseas recruitment to compensate for a dearth of domestic funding.
The new export figures, released on 2 August, are the latest in a see-sawing series of revenue estimates. Last October, the statistics bureau boosted the industry’s value by almost 20 per cent at the stroke of a pen after a methodological change increased its calculation of 2016-17 earnings from A$23.6 billion to more than A$28 billion.
The change triggered further revisions in the first half of this year, with the bureau upgrading and then downgrading its previous valuations. The volatility relates to overseas students’ spending on things such as food and accommodation rather than the tuition fees banked by universities.