Peak education bodies warn against government cap on international student numbers

Peak education bodies warn against government cap on international student numbers
  • PublishedMay 13, 2024

Australia’s university sector has warned against the federal government’s plan to cap international student numbers, as ministers and the International Education Council met Monday morning.  

The Commonwealth announced its plans to ensure the “integrity and sustainability” of the international education sector and set a cap on the number of student enrolments, to help with sustainable sector growth and ease national housing demand.

The cap would also mean educators are required to build purpose-built accommodations if they want to exceed limits to the caps. Last year 787,000 international students studied in Australia, exceeding pre-pandemic levels. 

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil and Education Minister Jason Clare, who released a draft of the framework for the legislation over the weekend, will be at the meeting on Monday morning, where education bodies will raise their concerns. 

Phil Honeywood, the CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, which includes universities, told the ABC many people overseas who had planned to come to Australia needed clarity on the changes. 

“We’re worried that we’re going to have policy overreach where too much, too quick is going to damage Australia’s reputation as a welcoming, safe, world-class study destination,” Mr Honeywood said. 

Mr Honeywood said all governments in Australia had “turned a blind eye” to ensure the public funding struggles of universities was adequate, which he said had left universities to recruit international students to “make up the shortfall for research funding and for delivery cross-subsidising our domestic students”.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, Mark Scott, highlighted that while university finances nearly “break even” on domestic students, there exists a significant underfunding in research. This funding gap, he explained, is filled by revenue generated from international student tuition.

“If you send a message to international students that they’re not welcome, they have many other options. This is the number one service export industry in the country,” Professor Scott said. 

“We’ll be saying to [the] government — listen carefully. Consult closely. Recognise the different universities and different providers have very different contexts. Let’s not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Let’s work carefully together to protect this market, to strengthen Australia’s universities, and to see the benefits accrue to all Australian society that international students bring.”

Positive and constructive 

The government said it would clamp down on the large growth in international student numbers after the results of a migration review this year, where it announced new visa streams and stricter language requirements to slow migration levels. 

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said he had been in detailed consultation with leaders from the international education sector to “make sure we get the design and implementation of these critical reforms right”.

“International education is a valuable national asset. It doesn’t just make us money, it makes us friends. These reforms will help to set it up for the future,” he said in a statement. 

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said the meeting had been “positive and constructive”.

“Our government is implementing big changes. We understand that. And we will work collaboratively with the sector to manage them,” she said. 

“The leadership of this sector also understand that things could not continue with the lazy policy settings left to us.

“No plan for migration, no plan for population, no plan for housing, no plan to ensure the sector meets skills shortages. For a sector this big and this important, it’s just not good enough.”

Speaking on ABC’s RN, Shadow Finance Minister Jane Hume refused to be drawn on whether the opposition would support the international student changes. However, she said migration was an area of “profound failure” for the government.

What are the other proposed changes? 

The federal government’s draft International Education and Skills Strategic Framework would look to:

  • Prevent education providers from owning education agent businesses
  • Pause applications for registration from new international education providers and of new courses from existing providers for periods of up to 12 months
  • Require new providers seeking registration to demonstrate a track record of quality education delivery to domestic students before they are allowed to recruit international students
  • Cancel dormant provider registrations to prevent them being used as a market entry tool by unscrupulous actors
  • Prevent providers under serious regulatory investigation from recruiting new international students
  • Improve the sharing of data relating to education agents

The government plans to amend the Education Services for Overseas Students Act to give the education minister power to set limits on enrolments for each education provider, including specific courses or locations.

Mr Honeywood said it was not just universities that would be affected by the proposed changes, but “hundreds of long-established English-language private colleges”, government high schools and private schools. 

“It’s going to cause a massive problem with 200,000 jobs potentially at risk,” he said. 

“We need to get certainty, and we don’t want to find that, in a few months’ time, we’re closing doors of both public university lecture theatres, but also closing doors of long-establish, quality private colleges.” 


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