International student caps: good politics, bad results

Universities already work with caps on student numbers, overall and in courses, Uni Newcastle VC Alex Zelinsky said last Friday. He was speaking at a campus event, with Education Minister Jason Clare.

“One of the things we have seen with international education is previously it’s been basically uncapped, unlimited and you could charge whatever you want,” Professor Zelensky said.

In contrast, “in the domestic market our numbers are capped and the prices there are set by the Government. So we actually are used to that kind of regulation and it’s always been negotiated with the Government in good faith.”

“Now we are going to engage in, I think, a very productive and I think constructive discussion about what should be the course limits for – sizes for various courses that we offer.”

When he said “productive” Professor Zelensky appears to mean for universities like his.

“A lot of the international students have been generally concentrated in the capital cities. And there’s been more concentration in recent times post-COVID. I think there’s a real opportunity for regional cities like Newcastle to take more students.”

Regionals and metros with low enrolments from overseas now may be tempted to follow in UoN’s footsteps and back the new arrangement if they get growth places.

If the majority of institutions decide they are on-side with caps, it will be a big win for Mr Clare, who is seeking to neutralise international student enrolments as an election issue.

The facts – that international students are not the cause of housing shortages, are funding significant proportions of the nation’s research and are not all immigrants masquerading as students – do not appear to matter. Both major parties seem to sense votes lie in trumpeting anti-immigration solutions.

The government’s “consultation draft” on international education will soon be the basis for policy (the Senate legislation committee considering the Bill to create new caps will report in August). Which will mean Mr Clare has delivered for the Government’s re-election campaign.

On the basis of what is proposed now, officials setting caps for each university’s international enrolments is bad policy. It includes Australia’s skill needs as a basis for numbers in individual courses, ignoring international students generally go home and will not respond well to being told what they can pay to study.

And it will be bad for the sector, even in universities the government will not want to penalise. As the learned Andrew Norton puts it, “the goals of the policy are to get international students to enrol in courses we already know they mostly do not want to take, and to attend universities we already know that none but a small minority want to attend.”

But it is great politics.



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