March international student numbers: Dirk Mulder digs into the data


The March stats include first in-takes at institutions, using a semester timetable and are a good guide to what is going on. (Have a look a HE starts in NSW)

And the bad news is

Across the nation in March, the key YTD stats are:

Overall commencers for all sectors were down 55 400, or 30.9 per cent while total enrolments were down 111 400, or 16.8 per cent.

Higher Ed commencers were down 16 600, or 21 per cent while enrolments were down 44 000 or 12.3 per cent.

VET commencers were down 4 800 or 9.5 per cent while first-time enrolments were down just 31 (no, there no noughts missing) starts or 0.02 per cent.

Schools commencers were down 3 400 or 51.2 per cent while enrolments were down 5 600 or 65.6 per cent.

ELICOS (Visa) commencers were down 18 500 or 65.8 per cent while enrolments were down 43.5 000 or 65.6 per cent.

Non-Award commencers were down 12 000 or 78.9 per cent while enrolments were down 18 000 or 66.1 per cent.

VET has peaked

The VET sector has defied the enrolment free-fall all year, including March – with starts down just 31 people.

However, the slide will steepen. The government’s decision to lift of work caps for international students working in tourism and hospitality (CMM May 6 and May 7) and the possibility of students moving to a 408 COVID-19 Event visa will have an impact over the coming months.  As CMM has regularly reported, there are international students who enrol in VET to stay in the country, with the option to stay in the country full-time, many won’t enrol.

Higher Ed stabilises

In the February YTD figures the downturn in enrolments was 17 000 or 36.5 per cent. The March YTD decline is better, down 16 600 or 15.4 per cent. Business, Engineering and IT Deans will be happy the decline trend line has plateaued and even kicked back a little (CMM May 7). But the news is not all as good as it looks (as the numbers from China show).

A tale of two large markets


China is down 4.3 per cent in commencements and 9.9 per cent in enrolments across all sectors. However, China in HE is up 15.9 per cent or 4,028 in commencers and only down 0.3 per cent or 411 enrolments. Much of this growth is in NSW which is up 38.4 per cent in commencers (3,560) and 6.3 per cent in enrolments (3,253). There is also growth in Queensland, up 27.6 per cent in commencers (889) and 8.1 per cent in enrolments (1,257).

That Chinese students are still happy to enrol to study on-line, in the hope that they will be able to come to campus here at a date to be fixed, is good.

But the figures are not as good they look. The government closed the borders to arrivals from China at the start of February last year so no visa applications were accepted – what the figures really indicate is revealed by comparing this March, with March ‘19, which shows overall commencements down 19 per cent.

There’s also an intriguing number in the new data – 3 560 of the 4028 March 2021 commencements are in NSW. Learned readers speculate that this might be the result of one or two universities that very keen to get their numbers up incentivising agents in China with generous commissions. Perhaps along the lines of the bonus-scheme at least one university is offering to agents in India and Nepal.


 India is down 28.8 per cent in commencements (7,782) and down 11.2 per cent in enrolments (12,484) across all sectors. In HE India is a very different story to China, down 51.9 per cent in commencers (8,135) and down 28.7 per cent in enrolments (20,967). All states are down feeling pain from this market.

May offshore figures indicate currently 21 per cent of Indian visa holders are offshore.

 Tomorrow: what happened state by state