unsw quadrangle
University of NSW (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Universities across Australia are recording higher levels of interest among prospective students, with more young people turning to higher education as the sector struggles during the pandemic.

Data from the University Admissions Centre, which handles undergraduate entry for NSW and the ACT, shows more than 43,000 students applied early for tertiary study in 2021 — an 8% increase on last year’s numbers.

Universities across the country are seeing a similar growth in domestic demand. In Queensland, there’s been a 20.3% increase in new enrolments compared to last year, the Tertiary Admissions Centre (QTAC) says — although that increase is just 6.5% when the state’s reduced 2019 year 12 cohort is factored in.

This week InDaily reported Adelaide’s Flinders University had recorded a 23% bump in enrolments for semester two this year, while neighbouring Adelaide University saw a 4% increase.

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In Victoria, growth has been more modest, with Year 12 applications for further study up 1.9% compared to last year, according to data from the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre.

It’s a rare silver lining for a higher education sector that’s been devastated during the pandemic — both by a dramatic drop-off in international student numbers, and a hostile federal government which has denied public universities JobKeeper support, and introduced a bill that will cut funding.

Still, that silver lining is itself a product of a tough economic environment, with young people turning to the relative stability of tertiary education because the alternatives — work, gap years, overseas travel — simply aren’t there.

“I would say that study is preferable to unemployment, and therefore there are a number of people who are borderline, who’ve decided they wouldn’t go to uni or would put uni off are now going,” Australian National University higher education expert Andrew Norton told Crikey.

We’ve seen these trends before — when the early 1990s recession hit, universities recorded growth in student demand, as more young people undertook higher education instead of entering a tough labour market.

But Norton warned that increased domestic demand might not be enough to offset the net loss in enrolments from overseas, which have been so crucial to the financial health of the sector.

Applications for international student visas fell 40% between January and July, compared with the same period last year, and the ABC reports the lack of government support for international students has led some to advise their peers back home not to study in Australia.

There have still been some bright spots for universities — institutions like the University of New South Wales have recorded more robust demand from China than expected, with international students studying online from back home.

But on the whole, higher domestic demand might not be enough to save a crippled higher education, which has shed 10% of its pre-pandemic workforce, and where the cuts will only keep coming.