Contribution of postgraduate coursework enrolments to Australian university student profiles and management of the COVID-19 recovery

By Frank Larkins

Summary: Recruitment of domestic and overseas postgraduate coursework students has formed a key part of strategic planning for many Australian universities at least since 2001. A priority has been to offer fee-paying courses for both domestic and overseas students to increase enrolments and discretionary revenues. Overseas student recruitment has been central to a successful outcome, especially over the past decade. The growth in postgraduate coursework students from 2001 to 2019 for 37 universities is profiled in this paper. Because of the high proportion of overseas postgraduate students in 2019, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the financial vulnerability of some universities has been very serious. The capacity to deliver viable postgraduate coursework programs will form an important part of the pandemic recovery.

In the period between 2001 and 2019 postgraduate coursework load increased by 183,514 EFTSL to be 22% of all student load in 2019 compared with 13% in 2001. Overseas students dominated the postgraduate coursework load profile in 2019 representing 61% of all postgraduates, while accounting for 69% of the student growth since 2001 - an exceptional outcome. Consequently, the proportion of all overseas students enrolled at the postgraduate level increased from 28% in 2001 to 40% in 2019, reinforcing their importance as part of any recovery strategy.

There is a marked contrast between domestic and overseas postgraduate enrolment patterns over the period investigated in terms of their mode and type of attendance. Only 3% of overseas postgraduates were studying exclusively on-line in 2019 compared with 46% of domestic postgraduate students. Some 87% of overseas students studying on-campuses were full-time compared with only 50% of the domestic on-campus students. For non-postgraduates, (predominantly undergraduates) only 2% of overseas students were studying exclusively on-line compared with 18% of domestic students.

The increased exposure to on-campus overseas postgraduate coursework students has been a major contributor to the overseas student fee losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Based on earlier research with Ian Marshman total losses in overseas fee revenue were predicted to be in the range $11.4 billion to $18.1 billion by 2024 without effective mitigation actions. With 40% of all overseas students enrolled in postgraduate courses in 2019, and a similar postgraduate and undergraduate enrolment pattern, between $4.6 billion and $7.2 billion of those potential at risk losses may be reasonably attributed to a reduction in overseas postgraduate coursework fee income. Some expected growth in domestic demand for 2021-22 at all levels will not be sufficient to offset the predicted overseas fee losses because of fewer on-campus enrolments.

Nineteen universities had more than 61% of their enrolled postgraduate students coming from overseas in 2019 with Federation University (90%) and Central Queensland University (87%) in the extreme range. Eight of the 19 universities also had more than 40% of all their overseas students as postgraduate, with the highest being CQU (89%), Charles Sturt (70%) and Federation (59%) (see table 6). These universities are the ones that must be most challenged to fund and deliver viable postgraduate coursework programs in 2021 and beyond.

In terms of cost efficiency in the delivery of postgraduate course programs overseas students have been a better investment for universities than domestic students. There is capacity for universities to improve domestic enrolments and full-time participation at all levels to raise their program delivery performances.

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