Resilient, successful, and stable: A gendered approach to international education recovery

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Key findings:


  • International education in Australia is becoming increasingly female: Since 2016 there has been an 18% growth in male international students – including the pandemic drop of 2020. Meanwhile, the numbers of female international students have risen 22% between 2016 and 2020.

  • Countries that send more women than men, send more students in total: Even without India and China, female-dominant markets send twice as many students to Australia

  • Female international students stuck with Australia during COVID: More of Australia’s female international students continued studying with an Australian university during the first year of the pandemic than males

  • Female international students are successful: Australia’s female international students were more successful during 2020 than their male counterparts and all domestic students.

  • A gender lens will be essential for effective diversification and recovery: Female international students face unique challenges and have particular aspirations and ambitions when they are choosing where to study.

  • Research on gender and international education is needed: There is a blind spot-on gender in Australia’s international education data and insight which should be urgently addressed to fully understand how the impacts of the pandemic will be felt in the future.


 


What can a gendered analysis of international student mobility tell us about

recovery planning?


The future of Australia’s international education sector is currently on the drawing board. During the midst of Australia’s COVID-19 surge, The Department of Education, Skills and Employment’s (DESE)’s Council for International Education released its updated Australian Strategy for International Education 2021 - 2030, painting a future for the sector built around increased diversification and a focus on student support and well-being.


Designing a post-border closure international education sector around diversity and support requires taking a closer look at who our international students are, where they come from and how they have fared during the pandemic.


Placing a gendered lens over Australia’s international education sector is one of the mechanisms that can be applied to build a sustainable and effective recovery strategy. This report uses the most recent available data (2020) to take a gendered look at how the first year of the pandemic impacted our international student community.



A gendered approach allows recovery efforts and strategies to:

  • Ensure services, support and recruitment takes onboard the experiences and priorities of female students.

  • Build an approach to international education at all stages of the student journey that considers the heterogeneity of the student body and the ways that gender and ethnicity and culture intersect along the way.

  • Integrate the gendered nature of push/pull dynamics that entice or dissuade female students to study abroad.

  • Consider the transformative nature of educational mobility for female students.

The 2020 data of course, only tells a small part of the pandemic story. During 2020 we were all in the infancy of the pandemic, with many students holding on with hope that the borders would soon open. At the beginning of 2022, the real impact of extended closed borders on international student flows is still emerging. What we do know is that Chinese students are not returning in the numbers that many had hoped. With China our largest source of female international students it is likely that our numbers of female international students studying in Australia will decline in the coming year.


Building back with diversity means ensuring that we are not only diversifying in terms of our source markets, but in terms of fields and modes of study. This means understanding the drivers of student mobility in terms of not only socio-economics and industrial priorities of home countries, but how these intersect with gendered aspirations and expectations.


This report focuses on the most recent data available to place a gendered lens over Australia’s international students during the first year of the pandemic. The lessons we can learn about Australia’s female international students during that time – where they came from and how they performed – can help in planning towards building a diverse and sustainable recovery.


Where do Australia’s female international students come from?


Australia’s feminizing international education sector is part of a global phenomenon of women increasingly seeking education abroad. Women’s enrolment in higher education globally has grown almost twice as fast as the rate of male enrolment in the past four decades, primarily due to increased equity and access, enhanced income potential and the internationally recognised imperative to narrow the gender gap at all levels of education.


As women’s participation in higher education has grown, so has their participation in global student mobility – albeit at a slower rate. In Australia the numbers of female international students rose 22% between 2016 and 2020, despite the decline in student numbers during the first year of the pandemic. The numbers of male students also rose during this time but at a slower rate (18%). Today there are almost equal numbers of male (51%) and female (49%) international students in Australia.



China and India dominate the top countries of origin for female international students, together sending over 100,000 female students to study in Australia each year.


Australia’s female-dominant sending countries


There are seven key markets that send more female students to study in Australia than male. These countries are all based in Northeast and Southeast Asia, and each have followed rapid economic growth in the last 40 years with rising participation of women at all levels of education domestically. Between 2000 and 2016, female enrolments in tertiary education in the Asia Pacific region increased by 41 million, resulting in participation levels in this region being in favour of females in many parts of Asia-Pacific today. There are now more women and girls in school today in the Asia-Pacific region than ever before.



Enrolments from female-majority markets were relatively stable during the first year of the pandemic. While all these countries besides Vietnam sent fewer students overall to Australia in 2020 than they did in 2019, the gender ratio remained the same. In other words, we can broadly accept that overall female students from this group of countries did not choose to delay their studies or study elsewhere at a higher rate than male students. In fact, Vietnam and South Korea had more female enrolments in 2020 than they did in 2019. Female-dominant sending countries were among Australia’s most stable during the early days of the pandemic, experiencing less relative volatility and disruption.


The China factor


Due to the sheer size of the Chinese market, a 7% overall drop in student numbers over the course of one year represents a decline of 11,223 students, more than all the Indonesian students that came to Australia in 2019. Any percentage drop in Chinese students, represents a loss of huge numbers of students to Australia’s institutions, and this has ramifications for the gender mix of Australia’s international student body.


China has been behind much of the growth in female students arriving in Australia. More than 54% of Chinese international students studying with Australian institutions are female. This mirrors China’s overall growth in the proportion of women leaving China for study which has increased fivefold, so that today 60% of outgoing students from China are female. Questions about whether Chinese students will return to Australia, in what numbers and how to best recruit and support Chinese students are largely also questions about gendered aspirations, careers and expectations.


Between 2019 and 2020, female enrolments from China dropped 9% while male enrolments dropped 5%. Despite this, female enrolments from China continued to outnumber male enrolments by more than 10,000 students. With predicted continued falls in Chinese student enrolments, this gap is expected to narrow in the coming years.


Australia’s male-dominant sending countries


The story from countries that send more males than females was quite different during the first year of the pandemic. Australia’s male-majority sending countries are predominantly located in South Asia and the Middle-East, rather than the Asia-Pacific region.


During the first year of the pandemic, male-majority markets experienced larger drops in overall enrolments. India, Australia’s second largest source country, declined by more than 24% between 2019 and 2020. At the same time, the percentages of female enrolments from all these countries - with the exception of Oman - increased during the year. In 2020, 49% of Nepalese students were female compared with 46% the year before. Female students made up 40% of Australia’s Indian students in 2020 compared with 36% in 2019. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan all experienced a rise in more than three percentage points in female student enrolment in Australia during the first year of the pandemic.


It can be assumed from this data that male students in these countries changed their minds or delayed their Australian studies during the early pandemic months at a greater rate than female students.



With the exception of India, male-majority sending countries send less students to Australia than female-majority nations. In total, the top seven female-dominant markets sent twice as many students to Australia in 2020 as the top nine male-dominant markets. This is accentuated without the two largest markets – China and India.



The top five female dominant markets, even without their largest contributor, are still responsible for more than double of students enrolled in Australia than the top five male dominant markets. In other words, regardless of the size of the Indian and Chinese markets, female-dominant source countries are more lucrative for Australia’s economy and provide more international students to Australian workplaces and communities.


Female international students are successful


Australia’s female undergraduate students are the most successful of all our university student cohorts. During the first year of the pandemic, female international students continued to have higher rates of academic success than their male counterparts and better than all domestic students. The success rates for female overseas students was 91.95% in 2020 and male overseas students 85.26%. Female domestic students had a success rate of 87.41% and male domestic students 83.46%.


International female students are traditionally relatively successful in Australian undergraduate courses. During the rapid digital transformation our institutions underwent during 2020, international female students continued to maintain – and in fact grow – their academic edge.


Why do women study abroad?


The economic development of middle-income countries – particularly in Asia - has led to expanding cities and an increased likelihood of women achieving higher levels of education at home. Changing gender roles and increasing empowerment of women, trends towards delayed marriage and independence have indeed contributed to a shift towards increasing female student mobility in recent decades. More women have access to global educational opportunities and Asia’s growing middle-classes are responsible for the surge in growth around the world of international education.


However, the story of Asian economic growth tells only part of the story. Persistent inequalities in home workforces are also a contributing factor to the growth of female international education as some women are motivated to study abroad due to a lack of opportunities at home. In China, for example, many women feel a stronger need to build international credentials to combat continuing misogynistic and sexist recruitment policies at home.


Possession of a higher degree that enhances reputation and status within family and society are further motivating factors for female international students. Indeed, during the pandemic students in China spoke of a sense of shame towards their family and community that they had been a “disappointment” because they could not access the international education that had been their ambition.


Several studies show that women are motivated to study for a wide range of “other” reasons that are arguably, not strongly connected directly to career-related objectives. For many female international students, an overseas education is viewed as an opportunity for personal growth. Many are drawn to the opportunity to be exposed to a new lifestyle and experience heightened independence. Studies have shown that female students are more influenced than males by the “pull” factors of a safe environment, low tuition fees, the attraction of living in a new and exciting place and opportunities for international networking.


By contrast, male international students have been found to be more influenced by the physical learning environment. Both groups have similar views about the importance of a friendly and supportive learning environment and the quality of education.


Generalising the motivations and ambitions across all female students is, of course, impossible. However, a gendered strategy for recovery is not only entirely possible, it is fundamental to a sustainable post-Covid international education sector in Australia.


Building a gendered approach to the future of Australia’s international education sector will take into account the ways that international mobility shapes, and is shaped by, gendered identities, ambitions and expectations. Such an approach will allow the sector to build empathetic and effective approaches to both diversification and student support.


The diversity question: A gendered analysis for recovery


Building diversification strategies together with a post-border closure approach to student support requires a gendered lens throughout all stages of the student journey. Female students are largely resilient, successful and are looking to gain more than qualifications throughout their student journey.


Australia’s largest source of international students, China, sends more women than men. China is not alone in being a key market that is feminized and many of Australia’s growth markets in North and Southeast Asia send large numbers of women to study in our campuses and live in our communities. Countries that do send more women than men to Australia were more stable overall during the first year of the pandemic than male-dominant countries.


Understanding this cohort – what they need in terms of support, their ambitions and their drivers - will be key to Australia’s post-border closure recovery.


At present there is a blind-spot on gender across Australia’s international education sector. There is little available data about student gender and there is little ongoing tracking and exploration of how the pandemic is impacting young women in our region. Considering the role that women from the Asia-Pacific region will play in the future of Australia’s university sector, filling this information gap takes on some level of urgency.

 

Angela Lehmann 李安棋

Head of Research at The Lygon Group