Dan O'Heirity

A Preface About the Complexity of Data

My primary purpose in this post was to sort through reputable data sources to determine the number of international students studying in Australia, particularly in the Higher Education sector. I determine to use data from the Australian Government. For the most part, all the reported data does come from the Australian Government. However, here’s the thing. The data reported by the Australian Government is different depending on just which data source you use. This is infuriating. However, I get it. Different departments will have collected the data in different ways and at different times and they will have used different criteria for determining whether a single student enrolled in two courses should count as one or two international students. There is a lesson to be learned here and it is a lesson that applies more widely to our reliance on data as a source of truth. Data does not represent the “truth”. Data is entirely questionable and we should question, particularly in terms of the figures that are pushed at us around the number of Covid-19 cases and the number of Covid-19 fatalities. I shall have more to say on this matter in another post.

Gosh, Australia Has One Heck of a Lot of International Students

Today I am going to take a look at a number of reports pertaining to the University sector in Australia which is heavily reliant upon income from international students, particularly Chinese students. I have reported facts and figures in this respect on multiple occasions but my previous posts have utilized data that has been reported in various news stories. In other words, I did not use data from primary sources which is something that is required when engaging in research. The situation is rectified in this observation. My first data source for international student data statistics comes from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment and provides international student data for 2019 showing that 956,733 international students were enrolled across all of Australia’s educational sectors. This information on the number of students comes from a pivot table at the bottom of the web page. There were 515,082 commencing students in the same time frame with this information also coming from a pivot table at the bottom of the web page.

This interactive dashboard, also from the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment shows that from January to December 2019 there were 758,154 enrolled international students in Australia. I am not wholly sure why this figure from the Australian Government differs from the figure quoted above from the Australian Government of 956,733 international students enrolled in Australia in 2019. However, the explanatory notes for the first data source that I quoted provide a number of reasons why the data from the first set might be higher than the data from the second set. For example, in terms of the first data set, a student attending two different courses in the same reference period (for example English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students and Bachelor Degree) will have both enrolments counted. This might not be the case with the second data source which would ultimately yield a lower overall figure for the number of enrolled international students in the period under consideration.

Australia Also Has Rather a Lot of Chinese Students Studying in the Various Educational Sectors

Honestly, there’s statistics all over the place for the number of international students studying in Australia so I’m going to start with another Australian Government, Department of Education, Skills and Employment data source which provides detailed statistics for international students studying in Australia’s Higher Education Sector. Note that these students represent a sub-set of all international students studying in Australia. This data is compiled in October of each year so at the time of writing – 9th May 2020 – data is available for 2018 having been compiled in October 2019. Data for the year 2018 reports a total of 222,484 commencing international students studying at Australian institutes of Higher Education. This represents a 9.8% increase over 2017. In terms of all overseas students studying in Higher Education in 2018, there were 479,987 international students studying in Australian institutes of Higher Education representing an increase of 11.3% over 2017. In terms of all students by country of permanent home residence, there were 158,319 students from China, 12,452 students from Hong Kong and 2,957 students from Taiwan studying in Higher Education in Australia. So, if we focus just on the number of Chinese students studying in Higher Education in Australia in 2018, we can say that 31.19% of all overseas students studying in Australian universities in 2018 were Chinese students by country of residence.

Continuing with a different data set from the Australian Government, Department of Education, Skills and Employment that provides the total figure of 758,154 enrolled international students studying in Australia in 2019, we can see that 212,164 of these students were from China meaning that Chinese students made up a total of 28% of all international students studying in Australia for the period from January through to December 2019. Still staying with the same data set and looking at February 2020, there were 593,718 enrolled international students studying in Australia with 163,757 of these students coming from China meaning once again that Chinese students made up 28% of all international students studying in Australia. I’m going to stop talking numbers and indulge in a moment of reflection. For the period January through to December 2019, Australia had over 200,000 Chinese students studying in its various educational sectors meaning that Chinese students accounted for over 25% of all international students studying in Australia.

A couple of alarm bells might ring at this point. First, the Australian education sector is obviously significantly over exposed to the international market and, particularly, to the Chinese market. Secondly, contingent on the spread of the students across the different educational sectors, it is likely that some sectors are far more exposed than other sectors. With the alarm bells in mind, let’s get more granular by continuing with an interactive dashboard from the Australian Government, Department of Education, Skills and Employment to filter students studying in Australia by country of origin and then by the sector in which they are studying. We’ve covered the Higher Education figures above. However, there are still significant numbers of Chinese students in other sectors including English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) which registered 42,155 enrolments by Chinese students for the period January through to December 2019 and the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector which registered 24,091 Chinese students for the period January through to December 2019.

The Percentage Figures for the Numbers of International Students Studying at Australian Universities Are Staggering

The most straightforward way to look at the over exposure of the different Australian universities to international students is to look purely at student numbers for international students. This data from 2018 – which cites the Australian Government as its source – provides a breakdown of the international student population studying in Australian universities According to this data source, 40.5% of all students at the University of Wollongong are international students. 48.9% of all students at Federation University are international students. Other Universities are less exposed to the international market. For example, international students make up only 16.3% of all students at Deakin University. Should we not be astonished that Wollongong and Flinders exposed themselves to so much risk by generating such a substantial percentage of their income from international students? It will be interesting in the months to come to see whether or not these universities had a risk management plan. Basically, what did they intend to do if the international market suddenly disappeared?

International Student Numbers From the Perspective of Equivalent Full-time Student Load

The other way that you can cut the international student data is in terms of Equivalent Full Time Student Load (EFTSL). EFTSL is used as a component to calculate a student’s contribution or a student’s study load with 1 EFTSL being equivalent to a full-time study load for one year. So if we use Australian Government data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, the actual student load (EFTSL) for commencing domestic and overseas students in 2018 was 440,909 EFTSLs. This compares with an EFTSL of 430,994 in 2017. This data source from the Australian government provides a breakdown of EFTSLs for the different universities across both domestic and overseas students. The EFTSL for the international students at the University of Wollongong in 2018 was 5,196 relative to a total EFTSL of 13,284. The EFTSL for international students at Federation University in 2018 was 3,771 against a total EFTSL of 6,415. The EFTSL for international students at Deakin University in 2018 was 5,051 against a total EFTSL of 15,916. These figures are staggering, particular the figures for Federation University where international students account for 58.78% of the total EFTSL at the university.

Just How Much Money Do Australian Universities Stand to Lose from the Downturn in International Student Numbers?

Although citing data might not everyone’s idea of a good time and as I said earlier, my previous reports on student numbers have not gone back to a primary source. Rather I had used data as reported in e.g. news stories. This time I have used primary sources to ensure that the data is, as far as possible reliable. Of course there is the point that I made above about data discrepancies even when the same data source – the Australian Government – is drawn upon. This tells us that as with all data – e.g. data on confirmed number of Covid-19 cases – we should be wary. That point aside, now that we have the data, I’m going to look at the projected losses in Australia from the international student fees as a result of the CPP virus. However, just to note first, a story from August 2019 that I have referenced before argued that “A downturn in the number of students from China could be “catastrophic” for some Australian universities and may force taxpayers to prop up the budgets of some of the nation’s oldest sandstone institutions.” And 8 months or so later, such has turned out to be the case. Some Australian universities are, indeed, in a catastrophic state.

According to this story from “The Conversation“, Australian Universities could lose up to $19 billion in the next three years and , “for every $1 lost in university tuition fees, there is another $1.15 lost in the broader economy due to international student spending” meaning that the economy could potentially lose $40 billion by 2023. That said, the report presents two scenarios, one with international student enrolments recovering in 2021 and the other with international student enrolments recovering in 2022. The projected losses are $10 billion and $19 billion respectively. The clear conclusion to be drawn here – from the perspective of university vice-chancellors at least – is that Australia’s universities need to start enrolling international students as soon as possible, despite the CCP virus. However, in my not very humble opinion, that would be the very definition of insanity. What universities need to do is to completely re-think their strategic plans so that they are never again in a position where they are unable to survive financially without their “cash cow” international students.

I have already made the point that the exposure of the different Australian Universities to the international market varies quite considerably. Thus, whilst the number of international students at Australian universities has grown 137% over the past decade with more than 40% of the sector’s annual student revenue now coming from international students, it has been reported that international student revenue at the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney accounts for 58% of all their revenue. Given the data that I presented earlier on student number across a range of universities, this figure will be far higher than that of other universities. These universities will be particularly pleased with the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggesting that Australia my exempt international students from the international travel ban as early as July 2020. If this were to happen – and it’s a pretty big if – then the “best case scenario” presented earlier would be bettered with international students being able to return to Australia in 2020 rather than in 2021.

However, once again, all I see here is evidence of short-term thinking by universities, or rather by university vice-chancellors who are, for the most part, paid over $1 million per annum to run Australia’s universities. Really, shame on them. I am reminded of an adage from business that the worst people to get you out of a bad situation are the people who got you into it. Let’s be clear here. It’s not the university rank and file who have got universities into the mess in which they currently find themselves. The people responsible are the very highly paid vice-chancellors, pro-vice chancellors and financial directors. They engaged in what can only be called an utterly stupid strategy of generating revenue from overseas market and now that stupidity has been realized. But these people will not be sacked because universities operate as pseudo businesses, not as really businesses. If universities were “real businesses” we would have seen vice-chancellors being marched out of the door for mismanagement and, quite frankly, unfathomable degrees of incompetence. Then new strategies would very quickly have been put in place

However, such is not the case. This article from the “South China Morning Post” reports on Australian universities being intent on bringing their international student numbers back up for, in my opinion, the rather obvious reason that universities have no other plan and so have to bring in cash from the international “cash cow” students. One can understand why this might be so in the short term – even though the fact is unforgiveable – but as Salvatore Babones, adjunct scholar at the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies says, “Australian universities should use this time to plan for a more sustainable international student scheme“. If by “more sustainable” Babones means an international student scheme that does not see Australian Universities wholly reliant on international student fees in order to be viable, and particularly Chinese student fees, then I would fully agree. It is early days with respect to governments and universities re-thinking the future of universities in Australia and so, perhaps, time will see more thoughtful strategies come into play. I have more to say on this below.

One Wonders What Universities Will Look Like in the Future

The Australian government has taken steps to try to lessen the impact on universities of the alleged massive drop off in international student enrolments that has occurred up until this point in time, May 10th 2020. For example, the government has guaranteed Commonwealth Grant Scheme subsidies for the estimated number of student enrolments in 2020 irrespective of the actual number of student enrolments at Australia’s universities. Basically, universities get their money even if student enrolments are lower than expected. The government has also waived $100 million in regulatory fees for Australian universities. These are fees that are paid but Australian universities to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) by vocational and educational training establishments to the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) in order to be able to offer education and training to domestic students in Australia. I don’t know how this $100 million dollars breaks down across the hundreds of educational institutions but you can be sure that this fee waiving is not going to solve the problem of the massive loss of revenue from the drop in international student numbers.

The government has also asked educational providers to develop short courses in priority areas such as IT and Health and student fees for these courses will be significantly reduced for students. There is an interesting point here. Shifting a focus towards short courses in these areas might suggest that the government is looking for universities to offer more vocationally directed courses, traditionally the remit of the VET sector. These initiatives are all well and good but if you look at the projected losses from the reduction in international students – ranging from $10 million to $19 million – then offering short courses, for example really going to do very little in terms supporting universities that are individually losing hundreds of hundreds of millions of dollars in international student fees. However, perhaps the financials are not the point. Perhaps the government has something else in mind in terms of refocussing the education sector. It is far to early to tell but there is some sense in the idea that the government may have a direction for e.g. universities that it will institute due to the appalling mismanagement of Australia’s universities.

The University of Melbourne has produced a report that conjectures – and it is pure conjecture – about what might happen to universities in the post Chinese virus world. Let’s first note an irony. The University of Melbourne is more exposed to the international student market than just about any other university in Australia. Just saying. Anyway, the report points to fewer students undertaking international study, growing student acceptance of online study due to e.g. social distancing measures, certain courses becoming less attractive due to not being perceived as offering a pathway to employment and “reorganization of universities and their workforces” which means sacking contract and casual staff.” In terms of the university where I work, the Vice Chancellor will be speaking to the university tomorrow about what the future holds. He has already signalled via email that there will be job losses and tomorrow is, amongst other things, about just how many job losses there will be and where these job losses will occur. My position is teaching and research focussed as well as being an ongoing position so perhaps I will be safe, for now. If not, I shall retreat to a small dwelling in the country where I will live even more reclusively than I do now.

First Published May 1st, 2020

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