Overseas students in Australian higher education: a quick guide

20 June 2019

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Dr Hazel Ferguson and Henry Sherrell
Social Policy Section

The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that, in 2017–18, international education was worth $32.4 billion to the Australian economy, up from $28.1 billion in 2016–17. Recent research for the Department of Education (DoE) shows Australia also gains social, cultural and skilled workforce benefits from international education.   

This quick guide provides an overview of key information related to overseas students in Australian higher education. Higher education accounted for 68.5 per cent ($22.2 billion) of international education export income in 2017–18, and 45.6 per cent of all overseas student enrolments in 2018.[1] Overseas students also enrol in Australian vocational education and training (VET), schools, English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS), and non-award courses. However, each of these accounts for fewer students and has less economic impact than overseas student enrolments in higher education.     

While people studying in Australia on a student visa are often referred to as ‘international students’, this quick guide uses the terminology of ‘overseas students’, which is more commonly used in the Australian Government’s Education and Home Affairs portfolios, which have responsibility for policy and programs related to overseas students.     

Except where otherwise indicated, the information provided in this quick guide relates to the entire higher education sector. Registered higher education providers are public and private universities, as well as for-profit and not-for-profit non-university providers, including public institutions such as TAFEs. 

Some non-Australian citizens, such as New Zealand citizens, permanent residents, and permanent humanitarian visa holders are not considered overseas students for the purposes of higher education support.

Enrolments

Overseas student statistics are available from the DoE’s international student data webpage. The latest full-year data is for 2018. As shown in Figure 1 below, there were 398,563 higher education enrolments by people in Australia on student visas.

Enrolments include new and continuing students. Enrolment figures can double count students who complete one course of study and enrol in another within given period. For example, a student may complete an ELICOS course and then enrol in a bachelor degree, and have both enrolments counted in the same year.   

Figure 1: higher education enrolments, overseas students, 2008–2018

Higher education enrolments, overseas students, 2008–2018

Source: DoE, Basic pivot table 2015–2019, December 2018.

Enrolments by state and territory

In 2018, overseas student enrolments in higher education institutions in Australia were largely concentrated in NSW and Victoria.

Table 1: higher education enrolments, overseas students, state and territory, 2018

State/territory Enrolments % of total
NSW 143,585 36.0
VIC 140,807 35.3
QLD 51,003 12.8
SA 20,722 5.2
WA 22,136 5.6
TAS 5,869 1.5
NT 1,540 0.4
ACT 12,901 3.2
Total 398,563 100.0

Source: DoE, Basic pivot table 2015–2019, December 2018.

Enrolments by nationality

Of overseas student enrolments in 2018, 38.3 per cent (152,591) were from China, and 18.0 per cent (71,857) were from India, with the remaining top ten nationalities being Nepal, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Table 2: higher education enrolments, overseas (os) students, state and territory, top ten nationalities, 2018

Nationality NSW Vic. QLD SA WA Tas. NT ACT Total % of all
OS
China 58,510 50,878 17,686 8,701 5,328 2,762 188 8,538 152,591 38.3
India 20,512 33,696 8,705 3,287 3,949 601 282 825 71,857 18.0
Nepal 19,306 4,720 2,141 776 703 121 378 88 28,233 7.1
Vietnam 5,462 6,617 1,452 880 792 232 75 208 15,718 3.9
Malaysia 2,243 6,041 1,794 1,237 1,781 576 19 297 13,988 3.5
Pakistan 4,709 4,351 769 320 921 105 55 167 11,397 2.9
Indonesia 3,153 4,692 754 216 671 30 35 324 9,875 2.5
Sri Lanka 981 6,599 691 249 413 95 37 144 9,209 2.3
Hong Kong 2,721 2,142 1,872 1,095 712 128 14 247 8,931 2.2
Singapore 1,368 2,454 1,291 537 1,215 265 1 197 7,328 1.8
Other 24,620 18,617 13,848 3,424 5,651 954 456 1,866 69,436 17.4
All OS 143,585 140,807 51,003 20,722 22,136 5,869 1,540 12,901 398,563 100.0

Source: DoE, Basic pivot table 2015–2019, December 2018.

Overseas share of higher education enrolments 

DoE’s higher education statistics provide a breakdown of overseas student enrolments at Australian higher education institutions, and allow comparison of overseas and domestic enrolments. The latest full-year for this data is 2017. Table 3 below shows total higher education enrolments for both overseas students and domestic students from 2008 to 2017. A breakdown by institution is at Appendix 1.

Table 3: higher education enrolments, domestic and overseas students, 2008–2017

OS students
(temporary
entry visas)
Other OS
students(a)  
Domestic
students
Total OS students (temporary
entry visas), % of all OS
higher education
enrolments
2008 207,100 87,063 771,932 1,066,095 19.4
2009 231,167 89,803 813,896 1,134,866 20.4
2010 245,737 89,536 857,384 1,192,657 20.6
2011 242,903 89,674 888,431 1,221,008 19.9
2012 232,867 90,745 934,110 1,257,722 18.5
2013 236,332 92,070 985,374 1,313,776 18.0
2014 254,383 93,177 1,025,670 1,373,230 18.5
2015 273,817 89,481 1,046,835 1,410,133 19.4
2016 304,957 86,179 1,066,073 1,457,209 20.9
2017 345,686 85,752 1,081,945 1,513,383 22.8

Source: DoE, ‘Student data’, DoE website, all students data tables, various years, and Parliamentary Library calculations.

(a) ‘Other overseas students’ includes those students who are not domestic students, and who are residing outside Australia during the unit of study/time of application. Students studying in Australia on student visas make up the bulk of the enrolments shown in the ‘temporary entry visas’ column. Further information about the citizenship classifications is available via DoE, HEIMSHELP.

Visa arrangements

Types of overseas student visas

Recent changes have reduced the number of student visas from seven to one, the Student (subclass 500) visa. Instead of distinct visas for different types of overseas students, there are now seven streams within the one visa: higher education; post-graduate research, VET, schools, independent ELICOS, foreign affairs or defence, and non-award. There is also a distinct student guardian visa, but these students are outside the scope of this quick guide.

International students studying in the higher education sector are predominantly granted student visas under the higher education and postgraduate research streams (see Tables 4 and 5 below).

Visa processing

The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) assesses and grants student visa applications. However, under the DHA’s Simplified Student Visa Framework (the Framework), higher education providers also have a role, with the intention of reducing duplication and streamlining the process.  

Two key areas where higher education providers have a role are in confirming English language proficiency and assessing the financial capacity of students to live in Australia. Depending on the higher education provider and the student’s country of origin, these requirements may not be further assessed by DHA. While the DHA retains the ability to assess any requirement for a student visa, the Framework does not mandate this.

Visa grants

Overseas student visa statistics are available from DHA, via the data.gov.au portal under Student visa program. The most recent full-year data is for 2018. The data show the number of visas granted, which is distinct from the number of overseas students as one overseas student may be granted more than one visa in a period of time, depending on their circumstance.

As shown in Table 4 below, there were 188,567 primary student visas granted in 2018 for the higher education and postgraduate research streams. ‘Primary’ refers to the person who holds the visa for the original purpose while ‘secondary’ refers to any spouses and/or dependent children.

Table 4 also shows the growth in primary student visas granted in the higher education stream from around 2011 to 2018, after a period of sustained downturn between 2008 and 2011.

Table 4: primary student visas granted—higher education and postgraduate research streams, 2008–2018

Primary student
visas granted
Growth rate
2008 126,470 14%
2009 119,570 -5%
2010 108,507 -9%
2011 104,277 -4%
2012 110,978 6%
2013 128,964 16%
2014 146,128 13%
2015 138,334 -5%
2016 152,017 10%
2017 168,149 11%
2018 188,567 12%

Source: DHA, ‘Student visa program’, February 2019, data.gov.au

Note: these figures include the higher education and postgraduate research streams of the student (subclass 500) visa.

When using visa statistics, including student visa statistics, the number of visas granted should not be used as a proxy for the number of people migrating to Australia. This is because a significant proportion of higher education overseas student visas are granted to people who are already in Australia, as shown in Table 5 below. Students gain visas in Australia for a variety of reasons, including moving from one mode of education to another, or transitioning from a different category of temporary visa to a student visa.

Table 5: primary student visas granted in Australia–higher education and postgraduate research streams, 2008–2018

Primary student visas
granted in Australia
Proportion of total primary
student visas granted
2008 38,269 30%
2009 42,365 35%
2010 49,673 46%
2011 52,715 51%
2012 50,939 46%
2013 49,707 39%
2014 47,292 32%
2015 42,486 31%
2016 44,158 29%
2017 49,871 30%
2018 61,590 33%

Source: DHA, ‘Student visa program’, February 2019, data.gov.au

Note: these figures include the higher education and postgraduate research streams of the student (subclass 500) visa.

Table 5 also shows primary student visas granted to people already in Australia over the past decade. The share of student visas granted in Australia as a proportion of the total has been relatively stable at about one-third, except from 2009 to 2013. Due in part to immigration policy changes, the proportion of primary student visas granted in Australia grew from 2008 to 2011 and then declined.

Eligibility

Under the Migration Regulations 1994, in order to be granted a student visa, applicants must:

  • be enrolled full-time in an approved Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS) course (that is, a course approved to be offered to overseas students) [section 500.211]
  • have sufficient money to support living in Australia (section 500.214)
  • have adequate health insurance (section 500.215)
  • be a ‘genuine temporary entrant’ with the intention to return home after studying (section 500.212) and
  • meet English language requirements (section 500.213).

Full-time study

An overseas student cannot undertake part-time study. A full-time course of study is required and this is linked to the length of each student visa. In most instances, this means overseas students are unable to vary their course load (medical and other exceptions are available). 

English language requirements

In practice, English language requirements for overseas students are subject to two thresholds:

IELTS is a widely used English language proficiency testing system. Four other types of proficiency tests are available for visa applicants, with equivalent minimum test scores.

Work rights

While the purpose of the overseas student visa program is study, rather than employment, people on student visas do have work rights. Currently, they may work up to 40 hours per fortnight when their course is in session (that is, during term time) and unlimited hours in holiday periods.

Tuition fees

Under the Higher Education Support Act 2003, the Higher Education Provider Guidelines 2012 (the Guidelines) specify (subject to some exceptions):

  • fees charged to overseas students must be sufficient to recover the full cost of providing the course to the student and
  • the fee cannot be less than the relevant domestic student fee, unless the course is fully offshore or permission for the lower fee is granted by the responsible department (currently DoE).

The Guidelines do not set an upper limit for overseas student fees.

According to the Australian Government’s Study Australia webpage, Australian higher education providers charge on average $15,000 to $33,000 for an undergraduate bachelor degree and $20,000 to $37,000 for a postgraduate Masters degree. (These figures do not include high-cost courses such as veterinary and medical degrees.)

Overseas student fees as a proportion of university revenue

For Australian universities, overseas student fees have been the largest source of revenue growth in recent years.

As shown in Table 6 below, revenue from overseas student fees has grown as a proportion of total revenue, from 15.5 per cent in 2008 to 23.3 per cent in 2017 (latest year available). The $1,208 million increase in revenue from overseas students from 2016 to 2017 accounted for 64.2 per cent of the total increase in all revenue for the same period ($1,881 million).

Table 6: Australian university revenue from fee paying overseas students, 2008–2017

Total revenue
from all
operations
($’000)
Change from
previous year
Revenue from
fee paying
overseas
students
($’000)
Change from
previous year
Percentage of
revenue from
fee paying OS
students
2008 $18,955,909   $2,946,127   15.5%
2009 $20,468,862 8.0% $3,414,687 15.9% 16.7%
2010 $22,158,466 8.3% $3,881,656 13.7% 17.5%
2011 $23,658,742 6.8% $4,124,064 6.2% 17.4%
2012 $25,210,033 6.6% $4,134,768 0.3% 16.4%
2013 $26,332,964 4.5% $4,290,808 3.8% 16.3%
2014 $27,751,858 5.4% $4,741,973 10.5% 17.1%
2015 $28,609,979 3.1% $5,349,879 12.8% 18.7%
2016 $30,147,079 5.4% $6,249,049 16.8% 20.7%
2017 $32,028,091 6.2% $7,457,002 19.3% 23.3%

Source: DoE, Financial Reports of Higher Education Providers, various years, and Parliamentary Library calculations.

Legislative protections for overseas students in Australia

Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards)

Under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011, all higher education providers must meet the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015 as a minimum condition of registration. Under the Threshold Standards, all institutions that offer higher education to students in Australia on a student visa are required to provide support services, including initial orientation and academic support.

The Education Services for Overseas Students legislative framework

In addition to the requirements of the Threshold Standards, the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 and related legislation, including the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018 (National Code), make specific provision for the protection of overseas students studying with Australian providers in any education sector.

In the higher education sector, these arrangements are primarily enforced by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), which also enforces the Threshold Standards.

Student satisfaction

DoE conducts an international student survey every two years, the latest being the 2018 International Student Survey. For overseas higher education students in Australia, compared with the 2016 International Student Survey:

  • 89 per cent are satisfied with their overall study experience (stable compared with 2016)
  • 91 per cent are satisfied with the quality of support provided (up from 89 per cent in 2016)
  • 88 per cent are satisfied with the overall learning environment (up from 87 per cent in 2016)
  • 92 per cent are satisfied with the expertise of lecturers (down from 93 per cent in 2016) and
  • 94 per cent are satisfied with the safety of living in Australia (up from 90 per cent in 2016).

Student achievement

Attrition rates

The DoE’s higher education statistics collection includes attrition (‘drop out’) data by citizenship status. For overseas students, the attrition rate increased from 8.9 per cent in 2008 to 9.4 per cent in 2016, while for domestic students the increase was from 12.6 per cent to 15 per cent in 2015, before declining to 14.3 per cent in 2016.

Table 7: domestic and overseas bachelor university student attrition rates 2008–2016, per cent

OS student
attrition rate
Domestic student
attrition rate
2008 8.9 12.6
2009 8.3 12.3
2010 8.3 12.9
2011 8.9 12.7
2012 8.9 13.3
2013 8.4 14.7
2014 8.7 15.0
2015 9.3 15.0
2016 9.4 14.3

Source: DoE, Selected higher education statistics – 2017 student data.

Note: the best available attrition measures for domestic and overseas students differ. The domestic student attrition rate used in Table 6 is the ‘new adjusted attrition rate’, which uses student ID and the Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number (CHESSN) to track students within and between institutions, so a student is not counted in the attrition figures if they move to another institution. The overseas student attrition rate used in Table 6 is the ‘new normal attrition rate’, which is based on student ID only (overseas students do not have a CHESSN). This means overseas students who move to another institution are counted in the attrition figures, leading likely to over-estimates of attrition among overseas students in the Table 7.

Post-study visa pathways

There is no automatic pathway from a student visa to a permanent residency visa in Australia.

However, overseas students can transition to various types of permanent residency visas if they meet the relevant eligibility criteria. A joint Treasury and Department of Home Affairs report published in 2018 found that, of 1.6 million overseas students (from all education sectors) granted a visa between 2000–01 and 2013–14, 16 per cent transitioned to a permanent residency visa at some stage after arriving in Australia.

Table 8 below shows 13,138 permanent residency visas were granted to people holding an international student visa in Australia in 2017–18, the lowest figure in a decade.

Table 8: permanent residency visas granted to former international students in Australia, 2008–09 to 2017–18

 

Total permanent
residency visas
granted
Skilled Partner Other
2008–09 20,141 15,878 4,087 176
2009–10 13,286 8,143 4,919 224
2010–11 29,755 24,450 5,172 133
2011–12 28,473 21,558 6,689 226
2012–13 30,170 21,714 8,011 445
2013–14 18,100 10,591 7,179 330
2014–15 17,638 10,006 7,173 459
2015–16 18,251 11,912 5,804 535
2016–17 17,102 9,451 7,118 533
2017–18 13,138 7,139 5,619 380

Source: DHA, Australian Migration Statistics, 2017–18, data.gov.au

Note: these statistics are only available for financial years. Also note the title for this table is drawn directly for the sourced material from the Department of Home Affairs.

However, international students who transition to another temporary visa, before gaining a permanent residency visa, are not included in the departmental data above. Given the increasing number of Temporary Graduate visas (Table 9 below), it is likely more people are transitioning from a student visa to a different category of temporary visa and then gaining a permanent residency visa. There is no publicly available data on this group of people.

A Temporary Graduate visa allows a migrant to live, study and work in Australia after completing their study. Only people who hold a student visa are eligible for the various streams of the Temporary Graduate visa.

Table 9: Temporary Graduate visas granted, 2008–2018

 

Total Temporary
Graduate visas
granted
Graduate Work Post-Study Work Skilled Graduate
2008 4,056 0 0 4,056
2009 20,025 0 0 20,025
2010 24,575 0 0 24,575
2011 27,736 0 0 27,736
2012 43,879 0 0 43,879
2013 25,657 5,184 32 20,441
2014 21,147 16,423 3,751 973
2015 25,624 13,345 12,203 76
2016 37,472 11,454 25,999 19
2017 46,340 8,752 37,580 8
2018 54,932 8,452 46,478 2

Source: DHA, ‘Temporary Graduate visa program’, April 2019, data.gov.au

Further information

There is a range of additional research and information available via the DoE’s international education website, including research papers, data visualisations showing student origins, locations and pathways, data on the offshore delivery of Australian courses, and Australian students studying overseas.

See also:

Appendix 1. All higher education students by state and territory, higher education institution, citizenship and residence status, 2017

State and institution Domestic students   Overseas students TOTAL
Australian
citizen
New
Zealand
citizen
Other
domestic
  Temporary
entry
permit
Other
overseas
New South Wales              
Charles Sturt University 32,754 307 587 8,942 1,569 44,159
Macquarie University 31,814 333 1,218 11,365 292 45,022
Southern Cross University 13,148 170 234 2,696 602 16,850
The University of New England 21,746 160 393 1,026 155 23,480
The University of Newcastle 28,180 173 599 4,010 1,388 34,350
The University of Sydney 38,494 819 2,149 22,564 418 64,444
University of New South Wales 36,957 np 2,114 20,196 np 59,782
University of Technology Sydney 28,928 216 1,450 13,442 846 44,882
University of Wollongong 18,946 101 408 7,652 7,340 34,447
Western Sydney University 36,790 355 1,660 5,569 372 44,746
Non-University Higher Education Institutions 33,260 407 720 15,174 4,033 53,594
Victoria              
Deakin University 42,885 424 1,150 11,170 478 56,107
Federation University Australia 8,238 61 231 3,818 1,374 13,722
La Trobe University 28,470 281 728 7,535 1,625 38,639
Monash University 42,103 625 1,966 22,058 11,505 78,257
RMIT University 33,960 457 1,785 14,495 14,841 65,538
Swinburne University of Technology 30,702 290 912 5,610 3,926 41,440
The University of Melbourne 37,771 1,002 2,628 23,680 176 65,257
University of Divinity 1,347 25 49 124 24 1,569
Victoria University 15,663 239 900 5,117 4,749 26,668
Non-University Higher Education Institutions 6,351 46 259 24,039 707 31,402
Queensland              
Bond University 2,906 68 111 2,813 273 6,171
CQUniversity 16,440 187 372 6,187 29 23,215
Griffith University 36,850 908 1,203 7,495 804 47,260
James Cook University 14,335 173 404 3,041 2,874 20,827
Queensland University of Technology 39,636 642 1,194 8,315 43 49,830
The University of Queensland 34,690 680 1,530 15,365 66 52,331
University of Southern Queensland 21,831 353 705 2,341 918 26,148
University of the Sunshine Coast 12,736 217 226 3,205 101 16,485
Non-University Higher Education Institutions 7,398 np 67 2,064 < 5 9,697
Western Australia              
Curtin University 32,935 403 1,862 6,708 7,002 48,910
Edith Cowan University 22,554 365 1,024 4,777 734 29,454
Murdoch University 13,832 224 672 1,842 6,657 23,227
The University of Notre Dame Australia 11,332 129 235 216 0 11,912
The University of Western Australia 18,310 238 1,213 5,066 432 25,259
Non-University Higher Education Institutions 1,494 16 107 1,863 1,315 4,795
South Australia              
Flinders University 19,667 92 792 3,160 1,558 25,269
The University of Adelaide 18,305 123 819 7,233 331 26,811
Torrens University Australia 5,219 17 10 3,697 202 9,145
University of South Australia 24,419 100 1,168 5,068 331 31,086
Private Universities (Table C) and Non-University Higher Education Institutions 5,442 92 368 2,508 2,805 11,215
Tasmania              
University of Tasmania 28,985 336 1,840 5,039 1,448 37,648
Non-University Higher Education Institutions 0 0 0 0 0 0
Northern Territory              
Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education 18 0 0 0 0 18
Charles Darwin University 8,433 114 655 2,212 18 11,432
Australian Capital Territory              
The Australian National University 15,218 288 776 8,671 402 25,355
University of Canberra 12,926 96 404 2,614 711 16,751
Non-University Higher Education Institutions 926 10 65 8 0 1,009
Multi-State              
Australian Catholic University 29,401 254 631 3,783 248 34,317
Non-University Higher Education Institutions 3,162 38 115 113 23 3,451
               
TOTAL 1,027,907 13,330 40,708   345,686 85,752 1,513,383

Source: DoE, ‘2017 Section 2 All students’, DoE website, September 2018.


[1].   Export income figure is from Parliamentary Library calculations based on Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), International Trade: Supplementary Information, Financial Year, 2017-18, cat. no. 5368.0.55.003, Table 9.1, ABS, Canberra, 2018.

 

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