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Update on Chinese student numbers at Australia’s G8 universities

The coronavirus epidemic has reawakened interest in the extraordinary reliance of Australian universities on students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Across all of Australia’s higher education institutions, Chinese students account for 37.3% of international students and more than 10% of all students. These figures only count students who are actually residents of mainland China; students from Hong Kong and Chinese citizens who are resident in Australia are not included. China truly is, as a 2019 Four Corners documentary put it, Australia’s international student ‘cash cow’.

In August, 2019, I compiled benchmark estimates of the size of the Chinese student market in a paper for the Centre for Independent Studies, The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities. With Chinese students back in the news, I have taken the opportunity to revise, expand, and update these estimates with the latest available data. The table below presents best-available estimates of Chinese student numbers and revenues at Australia’s G8 universities plus the University of Technology Sydney. Only columns (1), (2), (6), and (7) are exact figures; all other columns are best estimates based on publicly available data.

The University of Sydney and UNSW lead the country in numbers of Chinese students, with roughly 17,000 and 16,000, respectively. Both universities depend on Chinese student tuition for as much as one-quarter of their total revenues from all sources. Other highly exposed universities include UTS and (probably) Melbourne. Chinese students account for more than 13% of total enrolments at all G8 universities except UWA. For comparison, the most China-exposed public university in the entire United States, the University of Illinois, enrols 5,845 Chinese students, who make up 11.3% of its student body. Considering this concentration to be extremely risky, in 2017 the university prudently took out insurance against any sudden decline.

Australians don’t even have an exact accounting of the number of Chinese students attending their universities. Unlike US, UK, and Canadian universities, Australian universities (and their regulators) do not routinely publish statistics that break down international student enrolments by country of origin. Nineteen distinct sources had to be consulted to assemble the picture presented in the table below, and even so, the picture is incomplete. Good data is the first requirement for good policy. Australia’s universities and their regulators should implement international best practice and start providing routine, detailed statistics on international student numbers.

My estimates are given below, or CLICK HERE to download the full spreadsheet.

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Estimated Chinese student numbers and fee revenues for Australia’s G8 universities (plus UTS)
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
University Total number of students (2018) Number of international students (2018) Chinese students as a % of international students (best available data) Number of Chinese students (best available data or best guess) Chinese students as a % of all students (best available data)
Adelaide 26,911 7,839 53.8% 4,233 15.7%
ANU 26,395 10,575 59.1% 5,000 18.9%
Melbourne 68,084 26,568 50%* 13,000* 19.1%
Monash 83,478 38,295 28.7% 11,000 13.2%
Queensland 53,703 18,055 50%* 9,000* 16.8%
Sydney 66,818 26,041 66.7% 17,369 26.0%
UNSW 62,426 23,114 68.8% 15,902 25.5%
UWA 24,464 5,389 25%* 1,300* 5.3%
UTS 46,002 15,257 52.3% 7,979 17.3%
(6) (7) (8) (9) (10)
University Total university revenue from continuing operations (2018) Onshore international student fee revenue (2018) % of international student revenue generated by Chinese students† Estimated Chinese student fee revenue Estimated Chinese student fee revenue as a % of university revenue
Adelaide $915,102,000 $224,511,000 58.6% $131,657,741 14%
ANU $1,339,424,000 $317,838,000 64.4% $204,748,061 15%
Melbourne $2,661,608,000 $879,312,000 54.5% $479,225,040 18%
Monash $2,508,908,000 $841,980,000 31.3% $263,620,321 11%
Queensland $1,980,944,000 $552,882,000 54.5% $301,320,690 15%
Sydney $2,460,972,000 $884,693,000 71.0% $628,132,030 26%
UNSW $2,130,219,000 $712,457,000 74.0% $527,218,180 25%
UWA $926,013,000 $150,182,000 27.3% $40,924,595 4%
UTS $1,049,719,000 $358,799,000 59.0% $211,691,410 20%
* Estimates of roughly 50% and 25% Chinese based on a qualitative interpretation of these universities’ public statements and indicative data from DET; no data whatsoever seem to have been made publicly available by Melbourne, Queensland, or UWA.
† Based on auditor data for the three NSW universities; assessed at 9% higher than column (2) for others, based on the average difference for NSW universities.
Sources:
University 2018 annual reports
Department of Education and Training, uCube database
Department of Education and Training, International student data 2019
Audit Office of New South Wales, ‘Universities 2017 audits’, June 8, 2018
Audit Office of New South Wales, ‘Universities 2018 audits’, May 31, 2019
Victorian Auditor-General’s Office, ‘Results of 2018 Audits: Universities’, May 30, 2019
Office of the Auditor General Western Australia, ‘Audit Results Report – Annual 2018 Financial Audits’, May, 2019
Audit Office of Queensland, ‘Education: 2017–18 results of financial audits’, May 16, 2019
ABC Radio National, ‘Monash University delays start of term over coronavirus epidemic’, February 3, 2020
Canberra Times, ‘4000 ANU students stranded in China over coronavirus fears’, February 7, 2020
Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Degrees of risk: Inside Sydney’s extraordinary international student boom’, March 2, 2018

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Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies and an associate professor at the University of Sydney.

Published inAll ArticlesAustralia-China Relations
Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: s@salvatorebabones.com