International Students in Australia: Statistics and predictions to 2025

International Students in Australia: Statistics and predictions to 2025

“International Students in Australia statistics” covers a large area.  For the purposes of this article please note that when we say”international students” we are referring to international university/college students.  Apologies to anyone who would prefer us to be more specific each and every time we refer to them, we’d just rather tell you now and be done with it – hope that’s okay.
  • International Education is Australia’s 3rd largest export industry – it’s largest service export.
  • The Australian government is targeting 80% growth in international education by 2025 
  • Competition is fierce and will continue to be so – from existing substitutes (like the US and UK) and new alternatives (e.g., China)
  • The number of students at university worldwide (both domestic and international) is expected to grow by 177% percent from 2015 to 2040.

The world is going to university.  And increasingly, the world is studying overseas.  In the mid-1970s, there were approximately 800,000 students studying outside their country of origin (British Council, 2012, p.4) – a number that had increased to 2,000,000 in the OECD alone by 1999 (OECD, 2018).  That number had reached 5,000,000 by 2015 and the number of international students studying in OECD countries is expected to reach 8,000,000 by 2025 (OECD, 2018).  

Note that for this article, when we say “international students” we are referring to international university/college students.  Apologies to anyone who would prefer us to be more specific each and every time we refer to them, we’d just rather tell you now and be done with it – hope that’s okay.

Where do international students come from?

This depends on the destination country (discussed in the next section) but general trends can be drawn (see the below).

international students in australia statistics - where are they coming from?

Where are international students going?

In some ways, international students’ destinations have not changed a great deal in the last two decades; the top five destination markets still pull in approximately 60% of international student enrolments.  That said, in other ways, the change has been enormous.  

The biggest players have not changed – beyond the size of their respective ‘market share’.  In 2001, the USA and the UK were home to the largest proportions of international HE students with 28% and 11% respectively.  In 2016, they remained the largest with 22% and 11%.  

The big change lies with the smaller (but still significant) destination markets (the 3rd-5th place). Where in 2001, this was dominated by European countries (i.e., Germany and France on 9% and 7% respectively) with Australia a poor 5th (on 4%) – this situation has now changed markedly.  In 2016, Australia was home to 11% of the total international HE student body, with two new-comers (Canada and China) making up 17% between them.

What are international students worth to these countries?

Governments and universities both have identified the extraordinarily lucrative potential of the international student market.  While the USA still has by far the largest single body of international HE students – over 1,000,000 strong in 2017 and worth over $40bn USD p.a. (ICEF, 2018), other countries are working hard to catch up.

While the UK was home to 458,490 international students in 2017 (Department for Education, 2017) the UK government aims to increase this to 600,000 by 2030 (HESA, 2018).

The Australian government has far more aggressive growth targets.  From 399,078 students in 2019 (Department of Education and Training, 2018), the Australian government aims to increase its international HE student cohort by 80% within 7 years to 720,000 (ICEF, 2016).  

How do international students decide where they will go?

One of the most interesting studies in this space is the Hobsons Report (2014).  In brief, they performed an excellent study of over 18,000 international students from almost 200 countries – all over the world.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that the majority of students (60%+) chose one of either subject or country first when deciding between i) subject, ii) country, and iii) university.  Students who prioritised university above all else made up only 5% of the cohort – potentially chilling news for university admissions officers everywhere.

international students in australia statistics - how do students decide where they will go?

Another fascinating study in this space was done by the British Council on international HE student priorities in choosing an HE institution.  From 2012-2017, results were consistent and prioritised course quality, scholarships, and career prospects over other factors including (but not limited to) institution reputation, low fees, world class academics, etc.

international students australia - how do they decide where they will go 2?

International students in Australia statistics: the future

The world is going to university.  This has been true for some time – but in the mid-term future this is predicted to become particularly apparent.  

international students australia - the future of higher education

While this figure shows both domestic and international HE enrolments, the enthusiasm for international HE education seems unlikely to fade away any time soon.  

Update! Bonus infographic: International Students in Higher Education

We got such a great response to this article, we made an infographic with the key points.  Please find it below or as a pdf here – though if you do use it, please remember to attribute it properly. 

International Students in Higher Education infographic

Closing words

This blog post aims to compile current, useful information for administrators and professionals working in, affected by, or personally/professionally interested in this area – nothing more.  That said, discussion of any points (and implications thereof) raised in this blog post is more than welcome in the comments section below.  Or email us at [email protected].  We look forward to hearing from you.

The HeadStart Team

PS. Who are we to be writing about this you might ask?  Fair question – click here to see more about who we are or here to see what we’re all about.  


British Council (2017) 10 trends transformative changes in Higher Education, viewed 24th May 2019, https://ei.britishcouncil.org/educationintelligence/10-trends-transformative-changes-higher-education.

Calderon, A. (2019) Massification of higher education revisited, viewed 25th May 2019, http://cdn02.pucp.education/academico/2018/08/23165810/na_mass_revis_230818.pdf.

Department for Education (2019) International Education Strategy: global potential, global growth, viewed 25th May 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/international-education-strategy-global-potential-global-growth/international-education-strategy-global-potential-global-growth.

Department of Education and Training (2018) End of Year Summary of International Student Data 2018, viewed 25th May 2019, https://internationaleducation.gov.au/research/International-Student-Data/Documents/MONTHLY%20SUMMARIES/2018/International%20student%20data%20December%202018%20detailed%20summary.pdf.

HESA (2018) Where do HE students come from?, viewed 25th May 2019, https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/where-from.

Higher Education Policy Institute (2018) New study shows the benefits of international students are ten times greater than the costs – and are worth £310 per UK resident, viewed 25th May 2019, https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2018/01/11/new-figures-show-international-students-worth-22-7-billion-uk-cost-2-3-billion-net-gain-31-million-per-constituency-310-per-uk-resident/.

Hobsons (2014) Beyond the data: Influencing international student decision making, viewed 24th May 2019, https://www.hobsons.com/res/Whitepapers/23_Beyond_The_Data_Influencing_International_Student_Decision_Making.pdf.

ICEF (2016) Australia releases 10-year blueprint for expansion of its international education sector, viewed 25th May 2019, http://monitor.icef.com/2016/05/australia-releases-10-year-blueprint-for-expansion-of-its-international-education-sector/

ICEF (2017) Measuring up: Global market share and national targets in international education, viewed 24th May 2019, http://monitor.icef.com/2017/04/measuring-global-market-share-national-targets-international-education/.

ICEF (2018) International student numbers reach new record in the US but commencements down again this year, viewed 25th May 2019, http://monitor.icef.com/2018/11/international-student-numbers-reach-new-record-in-the-us-but-commencements-down-again-this-year/.

OECD (2018) Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators, viewed 25th May 2019, https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/education-at-a-glance-2018_eag-2018-en.

Universities Australia (2018) International students inject $32 billion a year into Australia’s economy – boosting Aussie jobs and wages, viewed 25th May 2019, https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/Media-and-Events/media-releases/International-students-inject–32-billion-a-year-into-Australia-s-economy—boosting-Aussie-jobs-and-wages#.XPC5t4gzY2y.

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