Further restrictions on the political freedoms of international students and other temporary migrants

Despite a COVID-driven dip to 1.6 million, Australia remains a country with high numbers of long-term migrants without the rights that come with permanent residence or citizenship. In many areas of public policy we are struggling, often unsuccessfully in my opinion, to deal with the social and political implications of this population, of which international students are the second largest category after New Zealanders.

A recent article in The Conversation by election law expert Graeme Orr drew my attention to a further example of unjustifiable, and in his view potentially unconstitutional, treatment of temporary migrants. For some years now the government has been preoccupied with ‘foreign’ (ie Chinese) influence. One response has been stripping temporary migrants of political rights.

Three years ago I wrote a post criticising restrictions on temporary migrants being able to make political donations. Legislation passed this week takes these restrictions much further, covering other kinds of political expenditure and activity.

Read More »

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For international students the 2020 higher education enrolment data released this week is already very out-of-date.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.

Read More »

Student employment is at record levels, but can it last?

In March 2020, as Australians realised that COVID was a major problem, I wrote a pessimistic post about student employment. For a while during 2020 that pessimism was justified. But not in 2021. Tertiary student employment is at an all-time high, driven by more jobs and less labour market competition.


For the ABS Participation, Job Search and Mobility survey the sample is full-time students who have completed Year 12 but have no post-school qualifications. For this group retrenchments were high in 2020. Of the people who were students in February 2021, and had been employed in February 2020, 6.5 per cent had been retrenched over the previous 12 months. This compares to retrenchment rates of about 2 per cent a year in the 2016-2020 period.

The ABS monthly and quarterly labour market reports do not include retrenchments by student status, but do provide a time series for 15-24 year old workers. About 24 per cent of those workers were full-time tertiary students in 2020. As the chart below shows, retrenchments for 15-24 year olds spiked in the May and August quarters. In the May 2020 quarter they were 31 per cent of all retrenchments. JobKeeper slowed overall job losses from the end of March, but this demographic is relatively high on people not meeting its personal eligibility criteria. Temporary migrants such as an international students were not included in JobKeeper and casuals needed to have been in their job for 12 months.

Employment to population ratio

The main analysis supported by the labour force statistics is full-time tertiary students aged 15-24 years. The chart below shows that just between March and April 2020 the proportion of tertiary students in employment fell significantly, down nearly 9 percentage points. Student employment levels were already coming off their summer peak, with employment rates declining from 65 per cent in December 2019 to 46 per cent in May 2020.

Read More »

International students and permanent residence

A Grattan Institute report released last night calls for big changes to the criteria for gaining permanent residence. While recognising that migration and higher education links may have benefits for Australia, the report questions giving permanent migration preference to former international students through points for Australian and regional university degrees, the professional year, and use of skills shortage lists. Instead they recommend permanent residence priority for employer-sponsored people earning more than $80,000 a year.

Major changes to PR rules would make international students nervous. And whatever the general merits of Grattan’s proposal, after Job-ready Graduates and border closures now probably isn’t the time to inflict another big problem on the higher education sector.

But reading the Grattan report (which I saw in draft) highlighted to me that I did not know how many former international students eventually achieve PR. The work for this post was an only partially successful attempt to remedy this situation. I’m not a migration expert and I may have missed or misunderstood things, but FWIW my key findings are below.

Total numbers of former international students with permanent residence

Counting former international students with PR is not a straightforward exercise, since there are many direct and indirect routes to permanent residence. A 2018 Treasury paper based on detailed immigration data identified 5,500 routes from a temporary visa, of which student visas are the largest category, to a permanent visa.

Taking all of these routes into account, of the 1.6 million people who had arrived on a student visa between 2000-01 and 2013-14 the Treasury paper calculated that 16 per cent, or about a quarter of a million, had achieved PR.

This number, however, is not consistent with an earlier Productivity Commission analysis, which on my reading of the relevant chart gets us to 300,000 international student conversions to PR just counting arrivals between 2000-01 and 2005-06.

The ABS Characteristics of Recent Migrants survey estimates how many people who first arrived on a student visa in the last 10 years have achieved PR or citizenship (a further step on from PR). The 2013 and 2016 surveys show growing numbers of former international students with PR or citizenship. By 2019, however, the numbers had fallen back below the 2013 level.

All the ABS numbers in the chart are below what we might expect from the Treasury or Productivity Commission figures. Policy changes a decade ago made it harder to transition from a student visa to PR just by holding a qualification in an area of alleged skills shortage. So an underlying downward trend is quite possible. There are, however, important differences between the ABS numbers and earlier statistics.

Read More »

Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 5: The rise of research rankings

In my series of posts on why universities became financially reliant on international students I have, to date, focused on domestic factors. Research funding policy changes are the most important. Universities needed new discretionary revenue to finance government-supported research projects, and to pay the salaries of staff with teaching and research roles.

But universities did not need a nearly 500 per cent real increase in international student fee revenue since 2000 to fill these budgetary gaps.

Suppose annual Commonwealth research spending was 50 per higher across the last few decades, all of it paid through block grants rather than generating additional costs via competitive grants. Up until the year 2000, as the chart below shows, a 50 per cent increase in public funding would have covered all research spending. But in 2018 Commonwealth funding 50 per cent higher than it was would still have left over 40 per cent of research spending unfunded (although there is about $1.9 billion in non-Commonwealth research income).

Profits on international students have been used to help finance a massive increase in university research expenditure this century.* Growth on this scale was something universities chose to do, not a change forced on them by government policy.

Read More »

Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 4: Trying to maintain a teaching-research academic workforce

In my previous post in this series, I argued that international student fees help pay for under-funded government-sponsored research grants. But these research projects are not the only partially-funded research universities are trying to finance. They also have many teaching staff on contracts that include research time, but who do not attract equivalent research income.

For academics, the expected and preferred academic career is generally to have a teaching and research or research only role. For most academics, however, teaching is not their top priority. A survey about a decade ago found that, among teaching-research academics, nearly two-thirds leaned towards or were primarily interested in research.

This bias is reinforced by the academic recruitment process, which favours people with PhDs. In 1987 less than a quarter of academics in the Colleges of Advanced Education, which by then taught the majority of higher education students, had PhDs, and 69 per cent of university academics. In 2018, across the now unified system, nearly 74 per cent of academics have a PhD.

Not surprisingly, most people who do PhDs are interested in research. In a 2010 survey, only six per cent of research students planning an academic career nominated a ‘mainly teaching’ role as their ideal job.

Read More »

Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 3: The rise of research project grants

In a previous post, I doubted that inadequate public funding for Commonwealth supported students could, with a few exceptions, explain why universities have enrolled so many fee-paying international students. For publicly-funded research, however, structural changes in how funding is delivered have changed its economics.

Government policy has moved away from block grant funding – lump sums of money that universities can spend as they choose – towards project funding awarded on a competitive basis, mainly through the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

In the 1990s, as the chart below shows, competitive grants made up less than a quarter of Commonwealth research spending on universities (counting Department of Education plus NHMRC). By the middle of the 2010s nearly half of Commonwealth funding was delivered through competitive grants, though with an easing off recently as ARC funding was cut.

Read More »

Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 2: The cost of educating Commonwealth supported students

In a previous blog post, I argued that stagnating or declining government revenues encourage universities to seek additional international student fee income. By 2018, international student fees provided 26 per cent of all university revenue, up from 10 per cent in 2000.

However, I doubted that aggregate public funding levels fully explained university dependence on international students, whose numbers grow when public spending is increasing as well as decreasing.

But in thinking about how government policy affects university decision making it is not just revenue that matters. The cost of the services universities deliver for their public money is also crucial to understanding university behaviour.

A recent article in The Conversation suggested that government student-linked revenue did not cover the full cost of growth in student numbers. Another Conversation piece this morning also suggested that universities have become reliant on international student fee revenue to cover the cost of teaching, as well as research and other activities.

However, a chart in my first post shows that since the mid-2000s average per student funding for Commonwealth supported students grew by more than inflation and then stabilised in real terms, although with a small recent decline.

But one point made in response to my original post was that wages usually grow by more than general inflation. This means that my CPI indexation of revenue does not fully adjust for the changing purchasing capacity of grants, given the bundle of goods and services universities actually buy. In 2018, 56 per cent of university expenditure was on wages.

Read More »

Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 1: Government funding cuts

A decline in international student numbers has triggered Australian higher education’s biggest-ever financial crisis. But why did universities became so financially reliant on international students?

In university constituencies, a common belief is that the government cuts going back to the 1990s are a factor.

Assessing trends in government funding is not straightforward. No official time series data exists. Different historical data sources do not always match.* There are notes about these issues in the text below, the footnote and the slides. I am confident of the overall pattern, although some year-to-year comparisons are not precise.

Read More »

How reliant is Australian university research on international student profits?

The decline in international student numbers has many people worried about the future of university research in Australia. A recent report from the Chief Scientist predicted that 7,000 research jobs could go due to reduced teaching profits, philanthropy and corporate funding.

In this post, I estimate how reliant research is on international student profits. It combines data from multiple sources. None of them were designed to calculate this profit, so my result should be taken as being in a plausible range rather than as a precise total. But it can give us a sense of the scale of reliance on international students.

According to the 2018 ABS higher education research report that was released yesterday, in 2018 universities spent $12.158 billion on research. The ABS also gives sources of research funding, but these only explain 44 per cent of the total, with the rest coming from ‘general university funds’.Read More »