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International students the lifeblood of postgraduate courses in Australia

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International students form the majority of postgraduate students at many Australian universities. Source: David Gray/AFP

According to reports, Australian universities are seeing an uptick in domestic postgraduate student enrolment amid the pandemic, especially in health-related courses. Is this, however, enough to keep postgraduate courses afloat in the countryDemand for postgraduate courses are bolstered by several factors including a combination of more year 12 school leavers, fewer students on gap years, and people returning to study because of the recession, said the Guardian.

Despite the uptick in domestic student enrolment, University of Melbourne Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins was reported to have said that it would be impossible for universities to replace overseas postgraduate students with locals, putting into question the viability of many courses. “Because of the high proportion of overseas postgraduate students in 2019, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the financial vulnerability of some universities has been very serious,” he said. “The capacity to deliver viable postgraduate coursework programmes will form an important part of the pandemic recovery.”

Larkins said overseas students dominated the postgraduate coursework load profile in 2019, representing 61% of all postgraduates while accounting for 69% of the student growth since 2001 — an exceptional outcome. “Consequently, the proportion of all overseas students enrolled at the postgraduate level increased from 28% in 2001 to 40% in 2019, reinforcing their importance as part of any recovery strategy,” he wrote.

Enrolment patterns of domestic and international students in postgraduate courses

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The survival of postgraduate courses hinges on international students. Source: Manan Vatsayana/AFP

Larkins noted a marked contrast between domestic and overseas postgraduate enrolment patterns over the period investigated regarding their mode and type of attendance. Pre-pandemic, international students typically represent a small number of students studying onlineFor instance, 3% of international students were studying exclusively online in 2019, compared with 46% of domestic postgraduate students.  Conversely, about 87% of international students studying on-campuses were full-time compared with only 50% of the domestic on-campus students. 

For non-postgraduates, (predominantly undergraduates) only 2% of overseas students were studying exclusively online compared with 18% of domestic students. With a large proportion of international students studying on-campus, they will be a major contributor to fee losses resulting from the pandemic in 2020. Despite the expected growth in domestic demand for 2021-22 at all levels, it will not be sufficient to offset the predicted overseas fee losses because of fewer on-campus enrolments.

International students comprise over 61% of 19 universities’ postgraduate students in 2019; Federation University (90%) and Central Queensland University (87%) were among those in the extreme range. Eight of the 19 universities also had more than 40% of all their overseas students as postgraduate, with the highest being CQU (89%), Charles Sturt (70%) and Federation (59%). 

“These universities are the ones that must be most challenged to fund and deliver viable postgraduate coursework programmes in 2021 and beyond,” said Larkins. “In terms of cost efficiency in the delivery of postgraduate courses, overseas students have been a better investment for universities than domestic students.” He added that universities could improve domestic enrolments and full-time participation at all levels to raise their programme delivery performances.

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