The increasing dependence of some Australian universities on targeting overseas student fee revenues from a limited number of countries has been an active higher education policy debate for some time. The risk scenarios rarely, if ever, mentioned the prospect of managing a national or global medical pandemic. Recently, much press coverage has been devoted to the disruption to the university studies of on-shore Chinese students due to the impact of the Coronavirus and the revenue consequences for institutions.

There were some 442,000 course enrolments by overseas students studying onshore on student visas at December 2019 of which some 165,000 (37 per cent) were Chinese students, according to figures provided by the Australian Government in the international student database.

The enrolment data, publicly available by state but not by institution, records that a substantial majority of onshore Chinese students (84 per cent) are enrolled in three states – NSW 39 per cent, Victoria 33 per cent and Queensland 12 per cent.  This highlights the vulnerability of some universities in these states; in particular the Group of Eight universities.

Department of Education data reveals that the overall growth in on-shore Chinese higher education student enrolments since 2013 has paralleled that for all countries, at 92 per cent, with the annual proportion of Chinese students being relatively constant at near 37 per cent.

However, as reported in a recent Go8 statement (February 13, 2020) and media comments, the growth for the Go8 universities has been disproportionate and has far exceeded the average with a 209 per cent increase in Chinese enrolments to more than 100,000 in 2019. Consequently, while Go8 universities had 39 per cent of all Chinese higher education enrolments in 2013 the proportion had increased to 63 per cent in 2019. Consequently, Chinese students have come to dominate overseas enrolments at Go8 universities increasing from 45% in 2013 to 65% in 2019. The policy of aggressively recruiting fee-paying Chinese students to drive revenue growth, has been discussed elsewhere,

Interestingly, while 63 in every 100 Chinese students enrolled in 2019 at Australian higher education institutions were at Go8 universities only 20 of every 100 students from all other countries were at these universities. This unbalanced outcome is because of the strong emphasis on China in Go8 recruitment strategies.

A recent press report (The Australian 19 February 2020) estimated the potential loss in fee income for the Go8 from Chinese students stranded overseas could be as high as $1.1 billion. Such a loss near this level is unlikely to be realised because many students will elect to have delayed starts to their 2020 courses rather than termination. Nevertheless, the high financial exposure should encourage university governing bodies to review their risk management policies and the narrowly focussed recruitment strategies that have led to such an extreme dependence of students from one country as a significant revenue source.

Frank Larkins is an Honorary Fellow, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. Writing with Ian Marshman,  his most recent analysis of the impact of potential fee losses through to 2024 is here.



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