International student enrolment set to exceed UK numbers

For the first time this year, the number of foreign students attending Australian universities is likely to exceed those studying in higher education institutions in the United Kingdom.

This will put Australia in second place, also for the first time, behind the United States in terms of overseas student enrolments.

International student numbers have been steadily increasing in Australia by the tens of thousands each year and 2019 looks set to be another record: Enrolments in the nation’s various higher education institutions are likely to reach 460,000, up from 400,000 last year.

According to Britain’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, UK universities enrolled 458,500 non-British students in 2017-18.

But that number is expected to fall sharply when or if the UK leaves the European Union. In fact, it seems the ongoing political uncertainty and debate over that issue have already affected applications from foreign students.

“Until recently, the UK was the second most popular destination globally for international students. However, there has been little growth in the number of international students entering the UK since 2012,” says Professor Simon Marginson.

Formerly a professor of education at Melbourne University in Australia, Marginson is now professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

“Recent data show that the gap between the UK and other countries [in foreign student enrolments] is shrinking and the UK may soon fall to third place,” he says.

“In 2015, the UK received 136,000 more international students than Australia. But when full figures for 2018 are available, they will show that if the UK is still ahead of Australia, the gap is only slight. In fact, Australia may have already passed the UK.”

Marginson says a small upturn in non-EU international students entering Britain in 2017-18, if it continues, suggests the UK may stave off a fall to third place a little longer.

“That depends partly on the rate of growth of international students in Australia. Brexit however will send student numbers from Europe [where the UK is overwhelmingly the leading provider of international education] down sharply in 2019-20 and 2020-21, enabling Australia to move into second place overall.”

Although the UK is currently the world’s leading nation in educating international students from Europe at the tertiary level, he says its position is about to be “decimated” by Brexit’s effect on tuition fees for students from the EU.

Their fees are currently tied to the same level as local students in whichever of the four UK constituent countries they study. After Brexit they are expected to have to pay the same rate as other international students, although that may depend on the outcome of negotiations over the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

Marginson thinks it is certain that Australia will exceed the UK in the numbers of its international students from outside Europe. In terms of total international student numbers in tertiary education, Australia may already have surpassed the UK in 2018. And that, he says, will put the United Kingdom at number three.

A world-class education

Australian Education Minister Dan Tehan says the nation’s “world-class international education sector” contributed AU$34 billion (US$24 billion) to the local economy in 2018, a 15% increase on the previous year.

“Australia hosted a record 690,000 international students in its schools, technical colleges and universities,” Tehan says. “And they paid tuition fees and spent money on living costs.”

The continuing expansion of the nation’s highly profitable business of selling education to foreigners has been astonishing: Universities alone have boosted their enrolments of foreign students by nearly 50% in the past five years.

"Over decades of investment, hard work and the commitment of world-class scholars, teachers and administrators, Australia has established a global reputation as a leader in higher education," Tehan says.

In a reference to Marginson’s centre, he adds: “Australia has a vibrant and high-performing international education sector, so much so that the British-based Centre for Global Higher Education predicts Australia will leapfrog the UK to become the world’s second most popular destination for international students this year.”

Tehan says the government has also been working to promote regional Australia as a destination for international students, so that regional communities might also enjoy the economic and cultural benefits that international students bring.

With an election due in the next three months, he adds a plug for his own party saying: “Only the [conservative] government will keep our economy strong and allow our export industries to thrive."

That seems a forlorn hope: All the polls indicate that the Australian Labor Party will sweep the conservatives from office and dominate the next parliament.

China numbers of concern

Of increasing concern to many of Australia’s higher education leaders, however, is China’s dominance in the foreign student market.

In terms of enrolments in the various education sectors, students from China now total almost 1.5 million and not only dominate the numbers of foreigners enrolled in higher education but also in technical and further education colleges as well as in schools.

Overall, students from China comprise about 30% of enrolments in the various sectors, followed by India with 13%, Nepal with 6%, and Brazil and Malaysia with 4% each.

Warnings of China’s influence on education – and other aspects of Australian society – are unlikely, however, to deter the universities from taking Chinese money in its billions.