/One of our best performing assets is in a precarious position (via Qpute.com)
One of our best performing assets is in a precarious position

One of our best performing assets is in a precarious position (via Qpute.com)

The figures don’t lie. We’re witnessing a substantial decline in the financial resilience of our universities, the nation’s leading services export.


Worse, there’s no plan to repair nor prevent the damage. Since the Senate blocked the Coalition’s 2015 higher education budget package, universities have endured a policy vacuum; relegated to the “too hard” column, alongside fellow policy orphans: energy, climate and economic reform.

Universities have been forced to pursue alternative funding options. Chief among these has been international enrolments.

In 2014, the average income NSW universities drew from overseas students lagged domestic student revenue by around $250 million. Just four years later, that’s flipped. Fees from international students now bring in about $1.1 billion more than domestic enrolments.

This is a fundamental structural change. Ironically, the abandonment of a reform agenda and the withdrawal of resources have have profoundly reshaped the sector. The trend is most pronounced at the University of NSW and the University of Sydney. At each institution, income from international students eclipses domestic student revenue and this elite duo account for by far the largest share of international student investment coming into NSW universities. There’s a reason for that.

The University of NSW campus in Kensington.

The University of NSW campus in Kensington.Credit:Edwina Pickles

UNSW and Sydney attract $745 million of the $1.1 billion total research income for NSW universities. They’re exceptional research institutions. Home to world leading quantum computing, medical, engineering and other trail blazing endeavours, these two universities put us on the map.

The internationalism that makes these two institutions, and the state’s 10 universities as a whole, so engaged, and so essential to the national interest, is now placing them most at risk.

At risk also are exceptional gains NSW universities are making in lifting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments, which increased by 8.4 per cent in 2017, well above the 4.5 per cent growth in non-Indigenous students.


The auditor reserved his most sombre decree for the danger he sees in singular and precarious income streams. Chinese enrolments, he observes, account for “over 43 per cent of all overseas students attending NSW universities”.

These students comprise more than 70 per cent of UNSW and Sydney’s international cohort. The concentration is also high but tempering at theUniversity of Technology Sydney and Macquarie.

The auditor has clearly assessed particular universities as being most at risk, “if demand shifts unexpectedly because of changes in political policy, economic conditions or visa requirements”.

Demand can indeed shift. Abruptly. In 2017, on the heels of the Trump election and Brexit referendum, Canada saw a 20 per cent lift in international students, while numbers in the perceived politically unstable US and UK fell away.

The humble auditor brings home a truth the sector and government have proven utterly unable to reconcile. Funding deprivation and failed reform have left one of our best performing economic assets in a precarious position.

The Coalition have pledged to “un-freeze” funding for domestic enrolments at the end of the year. But they’re imposing blanket population and performance restrictions that will barely loosen the current chokehold.

Our universities, the nation’s best defence against economic headwinds will be forced to continue rolling the dice internationally. Dependency on single-country overseas students will deepen and the risk intensify. Unless, of course … is it a bird, is it a plane? Could it be the Auditor has saved the day?

Andy Marks is assistant vice-chancellor at Western Sydney University.

Andy Marks is assistant vice-chancellor at Western Sydney University.

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