Australian universities ‘already near’ overseas enrolment caps

Figures indicate limited scope for growth in international enrolments, as administrators strive to balance the books

May 20, 2024
 A man jumps over two men who have their ties tied together as they play a game of Limbo in Melbourne, Australia to illustrate Australian universities ‘already near’ overseas enrolment caps
Source: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Australian universities may already have reached the international enrolment caps proposed by the federal government, stoking fears that they will struggle to stave off deficits.

Available data suggest that many universities are already close to their existing caps, the “institution capacity” limits listed on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (Cricos).

Latest Department of Education statistics, from 2022, show that universities’ combined foreign enrolments that year were only 45 per cent of the numbers allowed under Cricos. But university annual reports from 2023 suggest that onshore international enrolments increased by about 50 per cent that year.

Student visa grants have grown strongly in recent months, despite soaring rejection rates, indicating that overseas enrolments at universities this year are well above 2023 numbers.

A draft “strategic framework” for international education shows that the government intends to allow “managed growth” of overseas student numbers when enrolment caps are applied from 2025. Education minister Jason Clare said the government planned to deliver “sustainable growth in international education over time”.

But a bill to legislate the caps suggests that universities will have to mount strong arguments if they want to increase foreign enrolments. Any institution seeking permission to exceed its cap “must provide evidence and information to demonstrate…significant public interest”, according to an explanatory memorandum accompanying the bill.

Universities’ appeal rights will also be curtailed, the document says. “The allocation of student visas for overseas students will be limited and competitive. This power to set enrolment limits…ensures that overseas student enrolments are allocated beneficially for Australia’s interest. It is appropriate for merits review to be excluded from these decisions.”

Universities Australia said it expected the government to honour its promise of managed growth. “I take it in good faith that they’re going to allow growth…not just a curtailing of growth,” said chief executive Luke Sheehy. “Words are important here. We’ve seen pretty poor outcomes from the governments in Canada and the UK around the way they’ve treated their international education sectors.”

Regional Universities Network executive director Alec Webb said the requirement to provide extra housing to justify enrolment increases could “entrench disadvantage” among the institutions most affected by Covid.

“For universities that don’t have the benefit of billion-dollar surpluses, how are [they] going to afford to be able to build the purpose-built student accommodation to enrol additional international students? There’s a real possibility that this [will have] a compounding effect,” he said.

The Innovative Research Universities network said recent changes to visa processing had disproportionately affected its members. “We have to be very careful about how we make big sweeping changes to the international education system,” said executive director Paul Harris.

Independent senator David Pocock told the ABC that the government was using foreign students as a “scapegoat” to “avoid a meaningful conversation about immigration”. But the alternative government’s approach is no more sympathetic, with opposition leader Peter Dutton announcing policies to “set a cap on foreign students” and reduce their metropolitan enrolments “to relieve stress on rental markets”.

The National Tertiary Education Union said both sides of politics must guarantee that university funding and jobs would not be cut “because of fewer international students”.

“Staff are already confronted with rampant insecure work, systemic wage theft and soaring workloads,” national president Alison Barnes said. “More cuts will pour petrol on the fire.”

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