University boss calls international student cap 'chaos'

A university boss says the government's international student cap is driven by polling numbers rather than economic benefits.

Universities Australia chief executive Luke Sheehy will deliver a damning speech outlining why the Albanese government's plan to reduce international student numbers will hinder rather than strengthen the nation.

"The current policy approach to international education is anything but cohesive – it is policy chaos," he will tell the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia symposium on the Gold Coast on Wednesday.

"This bipartisan attack on international students is short-sighted and politically expedient."

The government introduced changes to parliament that would set a maximum number of international students able to enrol at universities each year which would only be lifted if more student accommodation is built.

The plan was delivered under the guise of shoring up more housing for Australians.

"We have to ensure that we manage the international education industry in a way that delivers the greatest benefit to Australia," Education Minister Jason Clare said last month.

The University of Melbourne
There are fears a cap on international students will mean a $500 million economic shortfall in 2024. (James Ross/AAP PHOTOS)

But Mr Sheehy believes the latest crackdown is to neutralise an election battle over the argument migration is the cause of the housing crisis.

He will contend education is Australia's fourth largest export - contributing $48 billion to the economy - with international students accounting for more than half of the country's fiscal growth in 2023.

There are already concerns there will be a $500 million economic shortfall in 2024.

Mr Sheehy attributes it to a rise in visa cancellations as a result of last year's student visa changes - which limited weekly work hours, increased the required savings when applying and stopped students shifting between courses in the first six months of arriving.

He will blame the university system's reliance on international students on a decade of policy changes that have decreased domestic student numbers with COVID-19 only exacerbating the problem.

The consequences of the proposed cap will be cuts to research funding and up to 4500 jobs at universities.

Mr Sheehy will argue any limits will also have a broader impact on the Australian life - lowering export revenue funding essential services such as Medicare and defence and decreasing jobs in sectors like retail, tourism and accommodation.

"Is now really the time to water down a major export industry?" Mr Sheehy asks.

To blame housing affordability and availability on the number of international students would be ignoring the benefits of the cohort, Mr Sheehy will say.

"Other factors, not international students, are to blame," he will say.

He will call on both sides of government to reconsider the implications of introducing a student cap on a thriving economic contributor that would be hampered by short-term politics.

"Let facts and data guide the debate and decision-making, not ideology or wishful thinking," Mr Sheehy will say.