More signs of domestic demand shrinking in Australia

Slump in applications to country’s biggest tertiary admissions centre aligns with anecdotal reports that universities are struggling to find students

March 15, 2022
Man drawing decline on a graph

Direct submissions to Australia’s biggest clearing house for university places fell sharply this summer, suggesting that the pandemic-induced spike in domestic study may have been a temporary phenomenon.

The Universities Admissions Centre (UAC), which mainly processes requests to study in New South Wales (NSW) and Canberra, received 5 per cent fewer applications than in the previous summer.

UAC’s “centralised admissions service” offered 7 per cent fewer places than last year, when the Sydney-based agency handled a record 110,000 offers.

The figures indicate that domestic appetite for higher education has receded almost to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting that the financial sugar hit universities received from booming Australian enrolments may already be over.

UAC’s general manager for marketing and engagement, Kim Paino, said the decline was particularly pronounced among mature-aged students. Many had made the most of coronavirus lockdowns by studying, but that instinct had “receded or evaporated” as job opportunities rebounded.

Ms Paino said that final-year school students had also shown less inclination to apply through tertiary admission centres, partly because many had already received early offers from universities on the strength of their 2020 results.

Some school students were also opting to take gap years, with international travel back on the menu. Others were deterred by the lingering prospect of online-only study at some universities, having endured months of remote schooling during the pandemic.

The slump in domestic applications is more bad news for universities faced with stuttering demand from international students, whose fees contribute heavily to their revenue.

The sector has received some good news on this score, with fresh data showing that the number of new overseas higher education students enrolling in January was more than 50 per cent higher than in January 2021. However, figures are not yet available for February or March, when most students enrol.

Overall foreign higher education enrolments remain subdued as the number of continuing students declines. Other statistics point to uncertain international demand, particularly from China, where more than 60 per cent of people enrolled in Australian institutions are still in their home country.

A small survey of Australian universities’ foreign students found that just 58 per cent planned to return to campus this year. Almost 30 per cent had no intention of coming back to Australia, with some aiming to study elsewhere.

Online study support service Studiosity, which commissioned the survey, said universities needed to do more to convince foreign students that they were welcome. “This group faces higher financial pressure [and] geographical logistics, with the added challenges of learning the language as well as the curriculum,” said chief academic officer Judyth Sachs. “It’s understandable that some might be anxious about their sense of belonging.”

Anecdotally, Australian universities are struggling to recruit both international and domestic students, with preliminary figures from some institutions pointing to declines among either or both groups.

The UAC data also suggest that the number of students applying through tertiary admissions centres (TACs) is again in decline after rising in 2021. This continues a long-term trend of would-be students bypassing TACs and applying directly to universities.

UAC has recaptured some of this business by processing the applications made directly to 11 institutions in NSW, Canberra, Queensland and Tasmania. The centre handled a record 106,000 such applications at the start of this academic year.

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