The on-going closure of Australia’s borders to overseas students will have greater proportional impact on the capacity of Australian universities to deliver on-campus postgraduate courses than on undergraduate course delivery.

This is because overseas students account for 52 per cent of PG student enrolments and just 25 per cent of UG numbers in 2019. Furthermore, some 97 per cent of overseas PGs were undertaking some on-campus studies in 2019, with 87 per cent studying full-time. In comparison, only 54 per cent of domestic students were engaged in some on-campus courses with just 50 per cent studying full-time.

Replacement of some overseas postgraduate students by domestic students will not address fundamental differences in student discipline choices and the mode and type of attendance.

My recent study of postgraduate student gender and discipline choices in 2019, the latest year for which comprehensive sector-wide data are available, revealed that gender and citizenship were important factors in subject discipline selection.

The distribution of PG coursework students for 2019 was: domestic males 19 per cent, domestic females 29 per cent, overseas males 27 per cent and overseas females 25 per cent. (The article is available on the Melbourne CSHE Fellow Voices website or on my Higher Education Policy and Performance website.)

The PG enrolments pattern for domestic and overseas students with respect to gender, on- and off- campus engagement and their choice of full- or part- time study types were very different. A higher percentage of males were studying on-campus than females with a similar proportion of both sexes studying full time.

Domestic students of both genders increased enrolments modestly from 2001 to 2019 with Management and Commerce, Health and Society and Culture courses preferred in 2019. Domestic students were seriously underrepresented in the five science and technology fields of national economic importance with only 20 per cent of domestic males and 7 per cent of domestic females choosing these courses. Another characteristic is the decline in on-campus participation and the increase in on-line enrolments. On-campus domestic male participation declined from 63 per cent in 2001 to 48 per cent in 2019 with the corresponding decline for females being from 62 per cent to 40 per cent.

Overseas students of both genders have recorded exceptional growth in postgraduate enrolment since 2001. Enrolments in 2019 increase by 286 per cent for males and by 431 per cent for females compared to 2001. This demand has changed the balance of enrolments in most postgraduate disciplines, except the health sciences, leading to a high dependence on overseas students for the viability of several postgraduate fields of education.

Overseas students overwhelmingly enrolled in management and commerce courses (overseas males 44 per cent, overseas females 48 per cent) and represented 71 per cent of all enrolees in these courses in 2019.

Overseas males strongly outnumbered domestic males in science and technology courses with 46 per cent choosing these courses compared with 20 per cent for domestic males. Furthermore, almost one quarter, 24 per cent, of overseas females chose to study science and technology courses in 2019 (especially information technology courses) compared with only 7 per cent of domestic female students.

Consequently, overseas students accounted for 76 per cent of all enrolees in science and technology disciplines.

The fields most dependent on overseas students are Information Technology with 87 per cent and Engineering and Related Technologies with 78 per cent of all enrolments in these disciplines. The unbalanced student discipline course profiles are a problem for the viability of science and technology programs in 2021 and 2022 at several universities because of the on-going restrictions on entry to Australia of overseas students.

With the exception of the discipline of Management and Commerce, domestic students accounted for a sizable majority of enrolments in the Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines in 2019, especially Education (82 per cent, 60 per cent female, 22 per cent male) and Society and Culture (78 per cent, female 52 per cent, male 26 per cent). Domestic females dominate all these fields of education and the Health Sciences (79 per cent, 56 per cent female, 23 per cent male). These courses will more readily withstand a decline in overseas student demand.

Three quarters of Australian universities (31 of 41) had more female students than male students, with 11 universities having more than 60 per cent female postgraduate students. This strong participation in postgraduate education is most welcome; however, there is cause for concern that domestic males had the lowest proportional participation level at 19 per cent. It is in the national interest for more domestic males to gain higher level skills to sustain Australia’s international social and economic competitiveness.

The expected continuing loss of overseas student enrolments in 2021 and 2022 will undermine the sustainability of several on-campus postgraduate course offerings in most Australian universities.

Curriculum restructuring will be very difficult with decreased course offerings in several universities. Further staff losses are to be expected.

Frank P. Larkins

University of Melbourne

April 2021


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