Are International Students Back? A Look at the Numbers

Australia’s international student numbers are returning – but there’s a long way to go

Last updated on May 18th, 2022 at 10:38 am by Adrian Edlington


During the COVID-19 pandemic, international student numbers dropped dramatically. With borders reopening, Savvy takes a deep dive into the numbers to see if there’s a rebound.

  • 750k international students studying in Australia in 2019 – dropping to 557k by 2021
  • International students now number 440,129 as of March 2022; 56,000 arrived in November 2021
  • 61,880 international student visa arrivals in March 2020; April 2020 saw just 300
  • Between April 2020 and May 2021, Australia saw only 31,960 student visa arrivals combined – half of the March 2020 figure


Australia international border open students

As borders closed in Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so did the usual flow of international students. International education contributes $40 billion to the wider economy – which was twice as much as in 2015. It also affected jobs in the sector with a loss of over 35,000 academic and professional staff.

So, what happened to the sector during the pandemic, and are international students back? Has the sector recovered or is there a long way to go? Savvy investigates the numbers.

Wipeout: the decimation of international students during the pandemic

In February-March 2020, the Australian Commonwealth Government halted all incoming flights from China and eventually the rest of the world to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

This meant the usually robust influx of international students ground to a halt. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics via Statista, in March 2020, Australia welcomed 61,880 international students on temporary student visas. In April, only 300 arrived.

In February 2019, around the time when university and TAFE courses are about to commence, 191,500 international students arrived on Australian campuses.

Throughout 2020, the growth in international students dipped by 9% and a further 17% in 2021.

According to the Department of Education, Skills, and Employment, numbers fell from the twenty-year peak of 756,636 international students in 2019 to just 557,836 students by the end of 2021 – representing a drop of 26%. This bucked a trend of an average of 9.4% growth streak from 2013 to 2019.

Australia international students 2022 infographic

Are international students coming back to Australia?

Yes – but still not up to the record levels we’ve seen.

More than 56,000 international students arrived in Australia since November 2021 bringing the total to about 440,129 as of March 2022.

According to the ABC, “the university sector has warned the export income from overseas students has halved to $22 billion in two years, and it will be a long time before numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.”

Where are international students coming from?

In 2019, the bulk of international students came from China, with 211,975. In distant second was India, with 115,082, This was followed by Nepal (53,526), Brazil (27,339), and Vietnam (26,003.)

As of March 2022, the top three remains the same – China on top spot with 127,094 students, India with 72,642 students, and Nepal with 38,946 students.

However, the subsequent three have changed somewhat with Vietnam now in fourth place with 17,069, Indonesia with 12,632, and Malaysia with 12,416.

Some countries have dropped off the scale entirely, such as the United States of America. In 2019 we had 11,972 in Australia, where as in 2022 we’ve only seen 2,676 US students, according to the DESE.

Note: A student can be counted across multiple years if their period of study spans two or more years.

Australian international student numbers in 2019 according to
Australian international student numbers in 2022 according to

How long will it take for international students to come back fully?

At this point, it’s hard to say when international students will come back to previous record levels – if they will at all.

As Australia dragged its feet on opening up borders, international students opted for other countries to study, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

The surge in November was spurred on by the Australian Government’s decision to have their visa application fees refunded if they arrived between 19 January 2022 and 20 March 2022.

Speaking to the ABC, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson called the numbers “promising” – “Before COVID, there were about 400,000 international students, since COVID it’s been about 300,000. So, we’ve got some numbers to make up.”

Savvy CEO Bill Tsouvalas says that we’ve felt the impact of low international student numbers in retail and hospitality, where jobs are going begging.

More support is required to attract international students back in Australia, such as increasing the 20 hour per week limit on work, further visa fee waivers, and rebuilding the reputation of Australia after stories of students paying full fees despite being locked out of the country for over two years.

Bill Tsouvalas, Savvy Managing Director & personal finance expert;

“The national employment rate is four percent, which is fantastic, but it also exposes our reliance on international students and temporary workers – if you’ve seen signs for ‘staff wanted’ at local cafes, bars, or restaurants, those brief shortfalls are usually filled by students and seasonal workers."

“International students can now demand better conditions and wages in retail and hospitality. It may also be incentive to study retail and hospitality as a pathway to permanent employment and permanent residency, which some international students will be more than interested in if they build social networks while they study.”

“The way we have treated some international students who have already paid their way is appalling, and a PR blitz needs to happen to repair our reputation as a premier destination for education once again,” Tsouvalas says.

This information is general in nature and not a substitute for professional financial advice.

For more information, contact Adrian Edlington – [email protected]


About Savvy

Savvy is one of Australia’s largest online financial brokers, focusing on personal and commercial financial products. Founded in 2010, the firm has seen rapid growth, a testament to their provision of market leading rates and reaching customers with the latest in media and technology. Savvy is a proud supporter of Kids Under Cover, a charity assisting homeless and at-risk youth to strengthen their bonds to community and education. Savvy was named one of BRW’s fastest growing companies in 2015.