Do international students take uni places from Australians?

In a Weekend Australian opinion piece attacking the government’s ending of undergraduate full-fee places at public universities, Glenda Korporaal says that

Far from creating a warm, multicultural glow, the over-reliance on foreign students has led to an undercurrent of resentment among many young Australians, who feel these students are depriving them and their mates of places at good universities (italics added)

In a reform of the last Howard Budget, universities no longer have absolute limits on the numbers of local students they can enrol. However, government policy still provides strong financial disincentives to take domestic undergraduates.

Up to 5% more than their quota number of student places, universities receive roughly the same as they would for within-quota students (ie the government subsidy plus the student contribution amount). Over that, they get the student contribution amount only. In most cases, international student fees will be significantly higher than either amount – twice as much or more than for within-quota students in some courses in the ‘good’ universities.

So now the key problem is less quantity constraints than price control. Australian students are not allowed to compete on price with international students. They are priced out of the market – not through prices being set too high, as the left supposes, but through prices being set too low.

But the 10 year experience of Australian full-fee undergraduate places being permitted suggests that their abolition will directly disadvantage only a modest number of students. About 40% of applicants miss out on their first-preference course, so the potential demand for above-quota fee-paying places is quite high.

Yet in 2006 (the last year for which figures are available), only 2.5% of Australian undergraduates were full-fee. This understates the proportion of Australian students who ever had a full-fee place, as some enrolled on this basis and then switched to HECS places. And some universities, for a mix of ideological and perceived lack of demand reasons, never offered full-fee undergraduate places.

However the relatively low number of full-fee students suggests that given the availability of cheap subsititutes – a HECS place at another university or in another course – most Australian applicants did not want to compete with international students if that meant doing so on on roughly the same financial terms. They were prepared to let international students outbid them. I don’t think this is good grounds for resentment, though I imagine it might be felt anyway.

Australian students should however resent foolish policies that prevent them enrolling in courses where there are places available. But the record suggests that the number of people directly affected by the policy bias against local students is fairly small.

11 thoughts on “Do international students take uni places from Australians?

  1. Agreed on displacement… however, scuttlebutt (perhaps you can analyze this too) is that the dependence on full fee paying students has lowered standards (because they pay for a degree, and failure to get it implies the product delivery system, e.g. the teaching, was defective).

    When the guy at Monash shot those people, and was a postgrad even though he couldn’t speak English, someone on the admissions committee ‘fessed up on radio that they were instructed that the only qualifications for a full-fee-paying-student was to be “warm and vertical”.

    Mind you, this is nothing to do with international v born here, apart from the fact that more international students are full-fee-paying.


  2. Dave – As I noted in this post, there is no systematic monitoring of the standard of courses or assessment so no way of conclusively determining this issue. We do know, however, that international students consistently have a slightly higher fail rate than domestic students and that there is no trend in this, so if there is soft marking it is not obviously increasing.


  3. Perhaps I’m naive, but I’ve never heard any local students ever complain about international ones for being international students — I tend to think it is much more of a political issue than a real one, with resentment basically being created by stupid people pushing ignorant ideas for political gain or just ignorance in general (like the author of the article). In fact, in many cases, it’s the absolute opposite to this — I’m aware of some courses that wouldn’t exist or would exist in some massively deprived from of what they are if not for the overseas students (I’d love to see a survey of electrical engineering departments across Australia, for example), so in this case, OS students are doing the Australian ones a favor, and quite probably Australia too if they stay here. It’s funny that we never here of this rather real possibility.


  4. Conrad – I’ve occasionally had questions on this issue, but like you I have not heard complaints along the lines that Korporaal reports. Oddly, all resentment was reserved for local fee-paying students, even though they were equivalent to the international students: extra places made available when regulatory constraints were relaxed.


  5. I have heard academic staff complain about international students. That is usually by people who believe that government should be giving more money to uni’s i.e. by people who would prefer to rent-seek than to work.


  6. I hear complaints from some academic staff too (quite unlike the students) although it’s usually about English standards and so on. Strangely enough, I have even heard this from someone whose course (and hence their own job) only exists thanks to them. Obviously they hadn’t quite made the connection! When I point out that many of the OS students have higher standards of maths and science, this falls on surprisingly deaf ears.


  7. Yes. That too. I have a theory that (many) Australians are linguistically lazy and take the view that smart people speak and write well in English. Those who do neither cannot be smart and should not be at university. Every now and then I have students who apologise to me for their poor English skills. I always reassure them that I am entirely illiterate in whatever their home language is.


  8. Just tell them to keep on, like Joseph Conrad, they might end up writing a great novel (in English).
    Economists tend to be illiterate in whatever their home language is (no offence intended).


  9. I don’t think the “left” had much to do with current university policy, but I tell you what I am fed up with people labeling things left or right instead of arguing the merits.

    As my kids ended up with many overseas friends through university, I find this take on things difficult to swallow, but given the hate sites talked about in today’s paper I suppose anything is possible if you mix with the right group of people.


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