The Ins and Outs: International Students in Australia

July 31, 2018
Editor(s): Stefano Gunawan
Writer(s): Leena Phan, Megan Ortega, Sam Iacono

International students are a big deal. Across the globe, international students continue to make up an ever-increasing part of the student populace. This should be no surprise. The world is globalising and nation-states are integrating; it’s a trend that can’t be stopped. Rightly so, individual countries are constantly looking for ways to develop themselves and learn from other cultures. For the destination countries, international students represent a consistent and important source of revenue. For developing nations, outbound (and hoped to be returning) students are seen as a valuable mechanism for national progress. International students themselves too experience a plethora of benefits from living and studying abroad, growing in ways they could never have done by just staying home.

This article will focus on Australia’s international student situation. Assessing three main features of the international student discussion – economics, international relations and culture – we will gain insight into Australia’s national picture and how international students fit into it.


There has been a steady rise in international student intake over the last two decades.

Economically, international students are crucial to Australia’s national interests. The international student market is now worth $32.2 billion a year, a number that continues to grow each year. International student education has already marked its place as Australia’s third largest export after iron ore ($63 billion) and coal ($57.1 billion). In this past year alone international students coming into Australia has increased by 12%, with enrolments reaching a figure of 799,371 (Australian Government Department of Education and Training; 2017). Five years ago, that number was just 526,932 (Australian Education International, 2013).

When it comes to international students, attention is usually paid to the higher-education Universities, which makes sense, given that the higher education sector accounts for 43.8% of all enrolments. But other areas should also be considered, particularly the VET sector where a substantial 27.2% of international students are also enrolled. Notably, 19.4% of all international students also enrol in English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS), a course students often couple with other qualifications such as bachelors or VET degrees. As a relatively minor sector, schools account for 3.2% of total enrolments.

There’s no doubt that international students constitute a vital part of Australia’s economy, but is it all good? This is a question that has been raised amongst the larger universities in Australia. Vicki Thompson, chief executive of the Group of Eight explained her concern that “our reliance on international students to fund basic teaching and research activities leaves the higher education sector financially vulnerable.” This statement is built upon the fact that international students not only make up a huge portion of enrolments at top Universities around Australia – The University of Melbourne as one example has an international enrolment percentage of 39.8% – they also pay up to four times as much for their tuition fees than domestic students. As such, it is clear that educational institutes, particularly top universities who charge the largest fees, are highly dependent on foreign money.  

Thompson did well to address the disconcerting financial situation Australia’s top universities face, but she also did well to raise another dilemma that Australia faces right now. “The real risk for Australia is that… should [international students] decide to no longer come, then our cupboard is bare.” Here Thompson echoed the national concern shared by foreign policymakers about Australia’s place in Asia, namely, that it doesn’t have one. But this particular concern appears unwarranted – at least as far as the top universities go. So long as top institutions exist and living standards remain high, Australia will always be a top international student destination. The topic of international relations more generally, however, is one that demands more attention. In 1980, the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once famously warned that Australia would become the “poor white trash” of Asia because of its concomitant foreign policy. Although Yew would later soften his views in light of the industrious Hawke-Keating era, Australia’s displaced aura in Asia still largely remains.

International Relations

Twelve of the top fifteen origin countries for international student are Asian

In 2016, there were over 700,000 students who came into Australia to study. Contrast this with the just 44,045 students who were sent abroad. That’s a 15:1 ratio. In the Australian government’s most recent publications and strategy papers regarding the ‘Asian Century’, an increasing importance has been placed on ‘Asia Literacy’ and ‘Asia Competencies’. Some of the government’s objectives include “providing every Australian student with an opportunity to study an Asian language”, and “to support young Australians to embrace study, work and travel in the region as a rite of passage”, with the ultimate goal being to “build a generation of Australians with greater understanding of our region.” These are lofty ambitions. So how has Australia been progressing on them? Not greatly.

Far from embracing Asia and learning about their ways, Australia has tended to toil amongst itself; flippant in its attitudes toward international partners. Network channels and political debates often find themselves littered with piddling disputes over foreign investment caps and Muslim immigration bans. The provocative One Nation leader Pauline Hanson added to the issue in April this year with her stringent views on student work visas: “Come here, do your studies. But work visas – no”, she said to Sky News.

Of course, it isn’t all bad. Australia has its redeeming features. The pride-worthy New Colombo Plan is one of them. Starting in 2014 with an initial funding of $100 million, the NCP has done well in building knowledge amongst the trailblazing New Colombo Scholars, a group set to be as large as 40,000 people by 2020 according to Foreign Minister Julia Bishop. The NCP and others initiatives like it, including the Melbourne University Asia Institute; The ANU Southeast Asia Institute; and the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, are all very respectable initiatives which highlight one of Australia’s most important national directives: ‘If you want to integrate with Asia, you need to educate your citizens about it.’ Perhaps the best illustration of the success outbound international students can potentially achieve is seen in the former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Ticking all the boxes of ‘Asia Literacy’, Rudd acquired a degree in Chinese Studies at ANU, became a fluent Mandarin speaker and has since worked extensively throughout his career to develop Australia-Asia and US-Asia ties. But Rudd, along with the other Asia-centric initiatives that exist, are exceptions – not the rule. In fact, Australia’s overall lack of Asian understanding is a status quo that can be seen no more clearly than on University campuses.


Walk through the University of Melbourne’s Union House during lunch hour and you will notice something subtle yet striking. It has to do with the groups of people that cluster around each other. But it’s not so much about the groups of people that cluster, but about the groups of people that don’t cluster. Even on virtual networks this kind of distance exists, with Chinese students mainly using WeChat platforms instead of other mainstream versions custom to locals such as Messenger and WhatsApp. Is this uncommon? Not quite. What happens on university campuses in terms of racial fragmentation is only one form of a more broadly spread phenomena. Travelling around certain suburbs in Victoria will have you see the same thing. Places like Footscray, Boxhill and Tarneit have become known for their disproportionate numbers of Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian inhabitants respectively.

Andrew Norton, Program Director of Higher Education at the Grattan Institute discussed the rise of international students in Australia recently. “This is transforming the rental market, it’s transforming the nature of the restaurants in the area, it’s changing what the streets look like. So this is having a big effect on certain parts of Australia well beyond the university gates.” Melbourne CBD is one area in particular that is largely affected, with research showing that the number of apartments in Melbourne has increased from 2050 dwellings in 2002 to 4785 dwellings in 2010 – an increase of 133 per cent, much of that increase attributable to the rise in international student numbers. (City of Melbourne, 2011)

Image from: City of Melbourne International Student Strategy document 2013-17


So, what does all this mean for Australia’s national situation? There are a few things that are clear. International students are on the rise and with ever-rising populations, that can’t be expected to stop; the international exchange industry is massive and irreplaceable; and Australia is a very diverse international landscape, but has much work to do in regards to developing its international literacy. Perhaps the words of Bernard Smith, an Australian art historian could do well to capture the national challenge, “A “we-are-Australian” approach can only have the long-term effect of turning the country into a European ghetto in a South East Pacific world.”

Medium population projections (Series B) predict some 22% growth over the next 12 years to reach a national figure of 30 million by 2030

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Stefano Gunawan

Stefano Gunawan is a 3rd year student pursuing an Honours degree in Economics. In the future he hopes to acquire a role in public policy and planning.

Leena Phan

Megan Ortega

Sam Iacono