Secret report reveals snowballing international student numbers

Confidential data suggest published figures routinely underestimate foreign enrolments in Australian higher education

July 18, 2018
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Record catch: Australia’s elite are landing more overseas students

Published figures routinely underestimate international enrolments in Australian higher education, according to confidential data that suggest that top-flight universities are monopolising the sector’s only significant source of revenue growth and driving domestic students towards minority status.

Department of Education and Training data obtained by Times Higher Education show that research-intensive universities have massively increased their intake of foreign students since 2014, with one doubling its overseas enrolments. Four of them – the universities of Sydney, New South Wales, and Melbourne, plus Monash University – now collectively host more international students than Scandinavia.

The secret report suggests that published DET data and some university annual reports underestimate the true number of overseas enrolments by several thousand. The department did not explain the discrepancy, saying only that the report was “drawn from a different dataset” from its published figures.

The secret report tracks the numbers of enrolled and commencing students recorded on the DET-administered Provider Registration and International Student Management System. It documents overseas student numbers in the first 11 months of 2017 compared with the equivalent periods of the preceding 15 years.

It shows that after a dozen years of only modest foreign enrolment increases, Australia’s top universities dramatically escalated their overseas intake from 2014.

Leading the pack was the University of Sydney, which increased its overseas enrolments from about 15,530 in 2014 to 30,943 in 2017. It overtook the University of New South Wales and the University of Melbourne to become Australia’s top higher education exporter after ramping up its foreign enrolments by almost 8,000 in 2016 alone.

International enrolments over the three years rose by about 65 per cent to 23,176 at Monash, by 52 per cent to 24,415 at Melbourne and by 49 per cent to 24,785 at UNSW. Other big growers – albeit from a much smaller base – included the Australian National University, which increased international enrolments by 61 per cent to almost 9,000.

Charles Sturt and Southern Cross universities in New South Wales both more than doubled their foreign enrolments, to 9,100 and 3,500, respectively. But overseas student numbers rose only marginally at Melbourne’s La Trobe and Victoria universities, and they fell significantly at the University of Canberra, Federation University in regional Victoria, Brisbane’s Griffith University and Perth’s Curtin and Murdoch universities.

The figures suggest that growth in Australian higher education exports is dominated by large universities from the prestigious Group of Eight network, while other institutions admit foreign students at a more modest rate, and a third group struggles to maintain numbers.

This could add to fears that snowballing education exports are pushing the higher education sector into a dangerous over-reliance on foreign tuition fees. Go8 universities, which attract the vast bulk of students from China, the largest market, are considered particularly vulnerable.

Over the past three years, the Go8 share of public universities’ international enrolments has risen from about 41 per cent to 48 per cent in the state of New South Wales, from 43 per cent to 45 per cent in Victoria and from 63 per cent to 75 per cent in the Australian Capital Territory.

The Department of Education and Training would not commit to publicly releasing the report or producing similar statistics in the future. A spokesman said that the data had been produced for consultation with “key” stakeholders. “It was agreed that the information would not be publicly released,” he said.

Considered alongside published enrolment statistics in university annual reports, the confidential data suggest that international students constitute about 35 per cent of enrolments at Monash, 41 per cent at UNSW and 52 per cent at Sydney.

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A University of Sydney spokeswoman disputed this, saying that foreign students represented 37 per cent of last year’s recruits. She said that the secret report overstated the university’s international enrolments because of time lag issues in student visa data, and because it included students who had withdrawn or had enrolled at the university’s English-language college.

She added that the university’s annual report had overstated the overseas share of enrolments because of rounding and timing errors. The online version of the report was changed after THE’s enquiry.

Monash University acknowledged high concentrations of foreign students at Go8 institutions, particularly Chinese taking business, marketing, finance and accounting courses. Deputy vice-chancellor Sue Elliott said that Monash had been “working hard” to diversify not only the source countries of its international cohort but also the courses those students entered.

Melbourne said that the growth in foreign students, particularly at postgraduate level, was consistent with its curriculum design and student load planning.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency declined to say whether it was planning to issue universities with guidance on maximum proportions of overseas students. It said that Australia’s Higher Education Standards Framework did not prescribe such limits.

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