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

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Gendered 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.