Patterns of international student enrolment decline in the first year of COVID-19

For international students the 2020 higher education enrolment data released this week is already very out-of-date. The international branch of DESE produces more current aggregate numbers, and has been circulating up-to-date figures to experts and stakeholders. Peter Hurley used these in a recent Conversation article. It’s a model for what, after a recent IT upgrade, could and should be done for domestic enrolments (my long-after-the-fact analysis of the 2020 domestic results is here).

Although more recent current total international enrolment figures are available, a few things in the recently released 2020 enrolment data tell us more than is publicly available elsewhere.


International bachelor degree students have much lower attrition rates after first year than their domestic counterparts. Flying to a foreign country and paying sometimes exorbitant fees is a strong incentive to get the degree. But while attrition for 2019 commencers into 2020 declined for domestic students, the international rate increased nearly 3 percentage points to 12.73 per cent. The most likely reason is that some international students could not get back to Australia due to travel bans.

Commencing and continuing students

Increased attrition meant fewer continuing students than would have been the case without COVID-19. But the prior boom years for commencing students meant that continuing students still increased in 2020 on 2019 figures. This is one reason why the overall decline in international students was contained to 6.6 per cent, despite an 18.2 per cent decrease in commencing numbers.

This pipeline effect worked in favour of Australian universities in 2020, but it will work against them for the next few years. Even if commencing students rebound strongly in 2022, lower commencing numbers in 2020 and 2021 will hold total enrolments down below the pre-COVID trend.

Online education

One reason universities were pessimistic in 2020 about international students studying online was that this market had not been successful for Australia. Despite generally booming international enrolments, and despite the global hype around online education, off-campus/online enrolments had been trending down. While I still doubt that online higher education will be a big long-term market for Australia, in 2020 for some students it was the least worst of a set of bad options. It has been an important source of revenue in 2020 and 2021 (according to ABS export figures).

Country-level trends

Unsurprisingly there is a relationship between the scale of enrolments prior to COVID and the decline in enrolments during 2020. But although Chinese students outnumber Indian students, Indian enrolments had a larger decline in absolute and percentage (India 19 per cent/ China 6.6 per cent) terms. The Indian market is more influenced by access to the Australian labour market, and so not being able to work in Australia meant not studying either.

University-level trends

In 2020 the standout defier of trends was the University of Sydney, managing to increase its international student enrolments by a large number. Charles Sturt and CQ University were hit hard.


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