Australian international education notches most lucrative quarter

Revenue and visa applications reach record levels, but have not yet translated into record student numbers

June 10, 2023
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Australian international education has reached its strongest position ever on several measures, suggesting the sector has shrugged off the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

The industry has notched its most lucrative quarter on record this year, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data, raking in almost A$11.1 billion (£5.9 billion) between January and March – a 7 per cent increase on the previous record set in early 2019.

International education suffered heavily from border closures, with annual earnings plunging from A$40.1 billion in 2019 to A$26.9 billion in 2021. The losses particularly affected businesses serving foreign students, such as food and accommodation providers, as well as private colleges with mainly foreign clientele.

But the industry has now recovered more than half of that ground, bringing in A$33.7 billion over the 12 months to March 2023.

The pandemic has also given rise to a robust trade in offshore international education, which earned Australia well over A$1 billion a quarter at the height of the pandemic.

While this revenue has fallen away since the borders reopened to international students at the end of 2021, it nevertheless drew in about a quarter of a billion dollars over the first three months of 2023 – up from a few million dollars a quarter before the pandemic.

Universities Australia described the March earnings figure as “a new high-water mark”.

“This gives us confidence we will soon regain the position of strength we held prior to the pandemic,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson.

“Exports underpin Australia’s economy, and education is the biggest one we don’t dig out of the ground. It’s an essential part of our economic mix, making our economy stronger and helping pay for the essential services all Australians need and enjoy.”

Applications for student visas have been at all-time highs for months, with unprecedented appetite from first-time students – particularly in the subcontinent – complemented by requests from continuing students who have been undertaking Australian courses in their home countries.

Offshore visa applications for higher education study have been at record levels every month since January 2022. This financial year’s tally has already well exceeded the previous record, in 2018-19, with May and June figures still to be counted.

However, the hunger for study has not yet translated to record arrivals – partly because student visa grant rates are at record lows in higher education, particularly in vocational education and training.

While more than a quarter of a million foreign students arrived in Australia in the first quarter of 2023 – easily the highest figure in three years – the tally was 6 per cent below the equivalent number in 2020, and 26 per cent below 2019 levels.

The 457,000 student visa holders in Australia last December exceeded any monthly tally of the previous two years. However, it was 5 per cent below the figure in December 2019, and 30 per cent below the all-time monthly record of 655,000 in October 2019.

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