Postgraduate coursework students have been very important to student growth in many universities over the past two decades. A priority has been to offer fee-paying courses for both domestic and overseas students to increase enrolments and discretionary revenues. The growth in postgraduate coursework students from 2001 to 2019 for 37 universities has been profiled in a recent Melbourne CSHE article , (also available here )

Between 2001 and 2019 postgraduate coursework load increased by 183,514 EFTSL to be 22 per cent of all student load in 2019 compared with 13 per cent in 2001. Overseas students dominated the postgraduate coursework load profile in 2019, representing 61 per cent of all postgraduates, while accounting for 69 per cent of the student growth since 2001 – an exceptional outcome by world recruitment standards. Consequently, 40 per cent of all overseas students were enrolled in postgraduate courses in 2019, reinforcing their key importance as part of any recovery strategy.

There is a a marked contrast between domestic and overseas postgraduate student profiles in terms of their mode and type of attendance.

Only 3 per cent of overseas postgraduates were studying exclusively on-line in 2019, compared with 46 per cent of domestic students. Some 87 per cent of overseas students studying on-campuses were full-time compared with only 50 per cent of the domestic on-campus students.  For non-postgraduates only 2 per cent of overseas students were studying exclusively on-line, compared with 18 per cent of domestic students. With indefinite border closures, the high level of on-campus study compounds the difficulty of a rapid financial and programme viability recovery.

The increased exposure to overseas postgraduate coursework students has been a major contributor to the overseas student fee losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Based on our earlier research, total funds at risk from overseas fee revenue declines were predicted to be in the range $11.4 bn to $18.1 bn by 2024, without effective mitigation actions. With 40 per cent of all overseas students enrolled in postgraduate courses in 2019, and a similar postgraduate and undergraduate enrolment pattern, between $4.6 bn and $7.2 bn of those potential at-risk revenues may be reasonably attributed to losses in overseas postgraduate coursework fee income. Some expected growth in domestic demand for 2021-22 at all levels will not be sufficient to compensate for fewer overseas students.

Nineteen universities had more than 61 per cent of their enrolled postgraduate students from overseas in 2019, with Federation University (90 per cent) and Central Queensland University (87 per cent) in the extreme range. Eight of those 19 universities also had more than 40 per cent of all their overseas students as postgraduate, with the highest being CQU (89 per cent), Charles Sturt (70 per cent) and Federation U (59 per cent), (see table 6 of original article).

These universities are the ones that must be most challenged to fund and deliver viable postgraduate coursework programmes in 2021 and beyond.

Overseas student demand has been the cornerstone of many successful postgraduate programme offerings. They can represent a superior investment for universities in terms of cost efficiency in the delivery of programs because students are predominantly full-time on campuses. With the viability of many postgraduate course offering in question for 2021 and beyond because of the pandemic, border closures and the present economic climate there is an opportunity and capacity for universities to improve both domestic enrolments and their level of full-time participation to raise program delivery performances.

Domestic growth is unlikely to be sufficient, nevertheless, to ensure the viability of some postgraduate subjects and courses in areas identified as critical to future national skills development in the Government’s recent Job-ready graduates reform package. Full recovery of course offerings in postgraduate programmes must await the lifting of international border travel restrictions.


Frank P. Larkins

University of Melbourne

February 11 2021



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