International students ‘becoming happier’ than locals: surveys

Overseas students’ rebounding satisfaction rates coincide with Australian policy moves to keep them out

April 18, 2024
 Malaysian students wearing gowns at their Melbourne University graduation to illustrate International students ‘becoming happier’ than locals: surveys
Source: Michael Thomas/Alamy

The post-Covid reopening of Australia’s borders has driven a surge in international students’ satisfaction ratings, just as changes to visa processing make it harder for overseas learners to travel Down Under.

Data from the Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching (Qilt), a suite of government-endorsed higher education surveys, show that foreigners’ appreciation of Antipodean education is catching up to – and in some cases, overtaking – the sentiment of their domestic counterparts.

Overseas students’ ratings of their overall educational experience typically lag Australian students’ appraisals by about 5 percentage points. But in the latest published student experience surveys, conducted in mid-2022, the gap narrowed to the lowest ever margin of just 1.5 percentage points.

Foreigners’ ratings of “teaching quality” – a survey item capturing aspects such as course structure, assessment tasks, teacher feedback and opportunities for active learning – overtook domestic students’ ratings for the first time.

Lisa Bolton, director of Qilt Research and Strategy at the Australian National University’s Social Research Centre, said the figures showed how things had changed since the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns.

“International students were doing it much harder then,” Ms Bolton said. “They rely heavily on the campus for their social needs, and this is very important to them. Domestic students are more likely to have friendship groups and supports outside the institutions.”

Things had not improved greatly for international students in 2021, with nearly one-third still stranded in their home countries and struggling to engage. But in 2022, overseas students who wanted to return to campus were able to do so, while many of their Australian peers still found themselves studying in “hybrid” mode.

“For domestic students who want that on-campus feel, we’re not quite back to how things were before Covid,” Ms Bolton said. “But the international student experience rating is higher than it was before Covid. In some areas, they’re happier than the domestic students.”

Mark Harvey, deputy vice-chancellor of international and external relations at Queensland University of Technology, said the resurgence of international student satisfaction risked being undermined by policy changes that reduced access to visas.

“We’re seeing a real positive trend in international student engagement in campus life,” he said. “Changing these policy settings [is] going to affect that, no doubt, in the long run.”

The improvement in international student sentiment has been particularly pronounced among taught postgraduate students, with foreigners’ satisfaction ratings reaching record levels and exceeding those of Australian students in all five “focus areas” captured by the satisfaction surveys: skills development, student support, learner engagement, learning resources and teaching quality.

International postgraduate students’ rating of “learner engagement”, which measures opportunities for students to interact with each other, was 14 percentage points higher than the rating from their domestic peers. Nevertheless, the overall experience rating among foreign postgraduates exceeded that of domestic postgraduates by a measly 0.2 percentage points.

Ms Bolton said the overall experience measure reflected aspects of study that mattered most to students, which might be things such as internships or lifestyle factors. “Most likely, there’s something that’s important to the international students’ experience that we aren’t capturing – something over and above the five focus areas we ask about.”

Publication of the 2023 survey results is expected later this year.

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