International student numbers won’t recover until 2028: Deakin VC

The number of international students studying at Australia universities may not return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2028, says Deakin University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Iain Martin.  

Australia’s international border closures have dented overseas enrolment numbers at tertiary institutions, which have relied on international student fees for years. 

Local universities lost an estimated $1.8 billion in combined revenue last year compared to 2019, with the sector set to lose a further $2 billion this year, according to Universities Australia.  

Prof. Martin told CEDA’s Victorian Vice Chancellors’ Panel event in Melbourne that international student numbers were expected to “bottom out” around 2022 or 2023 and recover thereafter.  

“A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation from some work that my CFO and I have done is that even if we could recover 30 per cent per annum from 2024 onwards, it’s 2028 before we get back to where we were in 2019-20,” he said. 

Prof. Martin was joined by Federation University Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Duncan Bentley; La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor John Dewar; Swinburne University of Technology Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Pascale Quester; and Victoria University Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Adam Shoemaker. 

How universities can bounce back 

The loss of revenue from international students has forced local universities to rethink their business models and how they fund their research.  

Prof. Quester said universities needed to “de-risk” their operating models and develop multiple forms of revenue.  

For example, tertiary institutions could better monetise educational assets and research capacity, develop more sustainable operating models, and drive greater adoption of technology. 

“Right now, universities have the capacity to harvest technology in a way that they never did before,” Prof. Quester said.  

Prof. Bentley said finding investments to develop and trial new business ideas was one of the big challenges facing higher education institutions.  

One idea that Federation University was exploring was offering carbon offsets through an environmental rehabilitation station that it owns in NSW.  

“If we apply what we’ve got and partner with other people, I think we’ll find there are avenues to monetise some of the things we’ve got which we hadn’t actually realised,” he said.  

Prof. Dewar said government funding had to be part of the conversation.  

“There are some aspects of our so-called business model that the government has to come to the party and talk to us about, especially this question of research,” he said. 

“Over the last 20 or 30 years, successive governments have encouraged the sector to recruit international students because they knew that it was a way in which the state funding of the sector could be reduced progressively over time.”  

“We will do our very best to manage with dramatically reduced revenue and resources, but ultimately it needs a good dialogue with government to chart out what the future is going to look like.”