Gender and citizenship factors strongly influence discipline course choices for postgraduates at Australian universities

By Frank Larkins

Summary: This study reviews the participation of domestic and overseas male and female students in postgraduate coursework programs by field of education. It builds upon an earlier work establishing that the majority of enrolled students were from overseas, predominantly studying on-campus in full-time programs in stark contrast to domestic enrolments. The viability of postgraduate programs in several universities were assessed by considering the very different attendance profiles for domestic and overseas students. Gender preferences and student discipline choices for postgraduate courses were not considered in the previous study.

Analysis of the most recent publicly available enrolment data for 2019 reveals that 54% of postgraduate students were female. Some 31 universities had more female students than male students, with 11 universities having more than 60% female postgraduate students. Domestic males had the lowest proportional participation level at 19%. The enrolments pattern for domestic and overseas students with respect to gender, on- and off-campus engagement and their choice of full- or part-time study types were very different.

Domestic students of both genders increased enrolments modestly from 2001 to 2019 with Management and Commerce, Health and Society and Culture courses preferred in 2019. A characteristic has been the decline in on-campus participation and the increase in online enrolments. On-campus domestic male participation declined from 63% in 2001 to 48% in 2019 with the corresponding decline for females being from 62% to 40%.

Overseas students of both genders have recorded exceptional growth in postgraduate enrolment since 2001. Enrolments in 2019 increase by 286% for males and by 431% compared with 2001. This demand has changed the balance of enrolments in most disciplines, except the health sciences, and led to a high dependence on overseas students for the academic and financial viability of several postgraduate fields of education.

Overseas students overwhelmingly enrolled in management and commerce courses (overseas males 44%, overseas females 48%) and represented 71% of all enrolees in these courses in 2019. Overseas males strongly outnumbered domestic males in science and technology course with 51% of enrolees compared with 20% for domestic males. Furthermore, almost one quarter, 24%, of overseas females chose to study science and technology courses in 2019 (especially information technology courses) compared with only 7% of domestic female students. Consequently, in 2019 76% of all enrolees in science and technology courses were overseas students. The most vulnerable fields were Information Technology with 87% overseas students and Engineering and Related Technologies at 78% overseas students.

The continuing loss of overseas student enrolments in 2021 and 2022 will undermine the sustainability of on-campus course offerings in most Australian universities. The inevitable restructuring will be more difficult at the postgraduate coursework level than at the undergraduate level because of the greater dependence on overseas students for course viability.

Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins is an Honorary Professorial Fellow from the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education and School of Chemistry, at The University of Melbourne.

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Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins

f.larkins@unimelb.edu.au