Australia’s universities are pushing back against government student visa cuts that will not only exacerbate domestic skills shortages by blocking thousands of future workers, but are estimated to cost the higher education sector $310 million in lost revenues this year alone.

International students will comprise a significant portion of the reduction in net migration, which reached a record of 510,000 last year and is being cut back hard – to just 375,000 this year and 250,000 by fiscal 2024-25 – as the government seeks to walk back cost of living pressures that have been blamed on the massive influx of students.

Its new Migration Strategy, released in December, is already affecting overseas student numbers this year, with changes such as a $19 million investment to tighten visa scrutiny – and ensure applicants are “genuine” students – complemented by a fast-tracked specialist skills pathway designed to patch the previously broken system.

The new requirements also heighten expectations around students’ English language skills – which Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said during the December policy launch are “a key determinant of how successful an international student will be both in their studies, but also in their work.”

With the 2024 academic year set to commence soon, tighter visa controls are already leaving many overseas students out in the cold – with the University of Wollongong reportedly writing to some overseas students telling them to withdraw their applications because tighter visa policies mean they won’t have student visas in time to commence their studies.

Blocking large numbers of overseas students is already creating problems for Australian universities, with 16 vice chancellors recently writing to O’Neil and Education Minister Jason Clare to warn of the “far-reaching implications” of the drastic reduction – not the least of which is that mass rejection of foreign students was likely to cost the university sector $310 million this year, which the letter says is similar to the sector’s losses during the punishing COVID-19 pandemic.

The cuts are “potentially jeopardising Australia’s brand as a preferred study destination and presenting significant financial threats to Australian universities,” the vice chancellors wrote, requesting that the government “[adjust] the prioritisation of visa processing timelines to ensure all universities are serviced promptly and fairly.”

Last year saw 733,370 student visa holders enter Australia (some of whom may have left and returned multiple times) and figures suggest that O’Neil has already reached her stated goal of bringing those numbers back to pre-pandemic levels, when in January 2019 some 90,290 student visa holders arrived in Australia to begin their studies; this January, by contrast, the number was 84,890.

Although the ideal is to produce “the workers that we need for the skill sets that we require right here at home,” Business Council of Australia CEO Bran Black said in joining O’Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles for the Migration Strategy launch, “the fact is right now we're not producing in sufficient numbers the workforce that we need for the future that we want. And that means we need to have the right settings to bring skills into Australia to help keep our economy moving.”

Finding the right balance

Just what those settings are, however, remains contentious: education experts warn policymakers not to ignore the economic and workforce benefits delivered by international students.

Students from China (with 165,983 students in Australia), India (126,422) and Nepal (62,310) dominated the international student body last year, with STEM courses well represented: 64,557 international students enrolled in and 31,380 commenced Information Technology subjects, while 53,913 enrolled in and 23,034 commenced Engineering.

Given that many of these students will potentially take jobs bolstering Australia’s well-paid but understaffed STEM workforce – the latest QILT Graduate Outcomes Survey found that in 2022, 50.8 per cent of international Computing and Information Systems graduates, 60.1 per cent of Engineering graduates, and 55.6 per cent of Science and Mathematics graduates were working full time in Australia six months after finishing their studies – slashing the number of incoming students is likely to hit IT industry skills pipelines hard.

And while implementation of the new migration policies may have alarmed the vice-chancellors enough to put their concerns in writing, concerns about slashing overseas student numbers are nothing new.

In releasing a report into the future internationalisation of Australian education, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson – who previously argued that international students “didn’t cause the housing crisis” – called for a “proactive and strategic” approach that recognised decades of work building a $36.4 billion education export industry “that underpins a higher and more sustainable standard of living for all Australians.”

“The skills and talents that international students add to Australia’s skills mix and the sector,” she said, “plays an important role in shaping global responses to global problems through research and soft power.”

Despite welcoming the decision to not deploy the “blunt policy instrument” of a cap on international student places, Jackson said, “universities remain wary…. Changes to policy settings – no matter how politically popular on the day – can put all of this at risk.”

“Any changes to our international education policy settings… need to be weighed carefully against the enormous benefits for which the sector is responsible.”