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Student visa numbers signal a return to growth
Image © E. Santa Maria

Student visa numbers signal a return to growth

Research 4 minute read

An ACER analysis has revealed the first sign of growth in higher education student visa applications, following three years of significant decline.

The large share of international students in the Australian higher education system set it apart from almost every other system in the world. While the Australian dependence on international students has been under pressure since a dramatic decline in enrolments, particularly those from India, new research has uncovered signs that the worst may be over.

In the final ACER Joining the Dots research briefing for 2012, co-authors ACER Principal Research Fellow Dr Daniel Edwards and ACER Research Fellow Eva van der Brugge examined seven years of data on higher education student visas to provide insight into the magnitude and causes of the downturn in international student numbers.

Figure 1: Visas lodged for higher education students by country of originGrowth in the number of higher education student visas granted peaked in 2009, when approximately 135 000 visas were issued, before falling almost 16 per cent in the years following. A key driver of this trend was a massive downturn in the number of visas granted to Indian students.

In the 2007-08 financial year, India overtook China as the country with the most higher education visa holders in Australia. However, the number of higher education visas granted to Indian students then suddenly declined, from its peak of 34 200 in 2007-08 to just 9750 in 2011-12 – a 71 per cent fall.

The trends for other countries that contribute large numbers of international students do not reflect the same dramatic pattern. China, the only other market in the same order of magnitude as India in 2007-08, experienced 18 per cent growth in visas granted. Among the next three largest source nations – Malaysia, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia – there have only been slight changes.

Dr Edwards and van der Brugge suggest that changes to migration policy made by the Australian Government between 2009 and 2011, which weakened the connection between studying in Australia and gaining permanent residency, have had a more profound impact on Indian visa applicants than on any of the other major source countries.

The resulting decline in Indian students in the Australian higher education system has therefore been significant. However, there are now signs that there may be renewed demand for Australian higher education from this market.

Dr Edwards and van der Brugge analysed unpublished data from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and discovered a 21 per cent increase in the number of higher education student visa applications
lodged by prospective Indian students in 2011-12. This is the first sign of growth in visa applications after three years of decline and suggests that applicant numbers may have now ‘bottomed-out’.

Figure 2: Grant rates for higher education visa applicants from offshore applicantsThe growth in the number of visa applicants in the last financial year also translated into an increase in the number of visas granted to Indian applicants. However, this increase was tempered by a further downturn in the success rate of these visa applications. In 2011-12, only around 50 per cent of Indian students who applied for a higher education visa offshore were successful, down from 96 per cent in 2006-07. In contrast, the Chinese grant rate has remained relatively stable and in 2011-12 was 97 per cent.

While Australian higher education visa numbers have been falling, Canada – one of Australia’s largest competitors for international students – has increased its international recruiting activity and eased visa requirements for international students. Possibly as a result of this, Indian student numbers have more than quadrupled in Canada during the period in which they have halved in Australia.

The United Kingdom and New Zealand have similarly doubled their Indian student numbers, and the United
States has experienced modest growth, leading Dr Edwards and van der Brugge to suggest that it is factors specific to Australia that have influenced the local decline in international students.

In addition to the migration policy changes, Dr Edwards and van der Brugge identified the recent strengthening of the Australian dollar, the closure of some tertiary providers (mainly in the VET area) and widespread media attention on violence against international students as factors specific to Australia that may have contributed to declining student numbers.

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Joining the Dots is a subscription-based resource provided by ACER to those with an interest in Australian higher education. Details for subscriptions are available at <> or by emailing

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