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One third of students with Australian study visas remain outside the country

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new government data release indicates that a third of foreign students holding an Australian study visa are currently located outside the country
  • Overall, the numbers of active student visa holders have declined by more than 30% over the past year

In November 2020, a report from a Victoria University think tank projected that Australia could lose up to half of its foreign enrolment by mid-2021 if the country’s borders remained closed to international students.

There have been some hopeful signs of late, with one state-level student arrival programme approved for South Australia and another expected soon for New South Wales. But Australia’s borders otherwise have indeed stayed closed to students are largely expected to remain so into 2022.

There were more than 758,000 visa-holding international students studying in Australia in 2019, and the country’s accomplishment in building its foreign enrolment base was a global success story with international education one of Australia’s largest export sectors. However, continuing data releases from the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) reveal that those forecasts from late-2020 are bearing out at the mid-point of the year.

One March 2020 snapshot from the early stages of the pandemic reported a total of 694,038 Australian student visa holders as of 29 March 2020, with 18% (or roughly 125,400) of those students caught outside the country at that time.

More than a year later, the latest DESE update finds the following as of 28 June 2021.

  • The total number of visa holders has declined by nearly a third (-31.9%) between March 2020 and June 2021, for a current total of 472,615.
  • One third of those visa holders – just under 160,000 students – are currently outside of Australia.
  • Most of those students (85%) that still hold an Australian study visa while outside the country are enrolled in, or intending to join, a higher education institution.

The current DESE statistics are summarised in the following table.

Number and location of Australian student visa holders, by category of study, as of 28 June 2021. Source: DESE

A related DESE commentary from May 2021 notes the economic impact of visa holders studying from outside of the country: “International students studying from outside Australia during the COVID-19 crisis are making an important contribution to the Australian economy. Preliminary data…shows that tuition fees from students outside Australia totalled AUS$3.3 billion in 2020.”

Not surprisingly, Chinese students account for a significant proportion – more than half – of all visa holders outside of Australia as of end-June 2021. The additional table below shows the top ten sending countries for Australia, as reflected in current visa holder counts, both for students in and outside of the country.

Number and location of Australian student visa holders for top ten sending markets as of June 2021. Source: DESE

Commenting recently on the continuing border closures, Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said:

“Governments across all jurisdictions need to come together with universities to develop a robust plan for the safe return of international students. The plan would mean the careful quarantine of students from low-risk countries. The sector took an AUS$1.8 billion revenue hit last year. Universities Australia conservatively estimates at least another AUS$2 billion will be lost this year – against 2019 actual operating revenue.”

“With assumptions around borders being shut until mid-2022 now [factored into government planning], the picture for universities will get worse,” she added. “There will be significant flow-on effects for the nation’s research capacity and jobs inside and outside universities. Australia’s university sector cannot sustain these losses without serious damage to national productivity and the country’s knowledge base.”

For additional background, please see:


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