In trade figures released on Wednesday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said total spending by international students in Australia – including course fees, accommodation, living expenses and recreation – was $19.2 billion in 2015, up from $17 billion the previous year.
Phil Honeywood, executive director of International Education Association of Australia, said the data showed international students were making a significant contribution to the economy at a time when resource exports were flagging.
The latest figures firm up education's position as Australia's third-largest export after coal and iron ore, as well as its position as the largest services export, well ahead of tourism.
Tourism exports also rose strongly in 2015, up 11 per cent to $15.8 billion, the ABS trade data shows.
Separate figures from the federal Education Department show about 650,000 international students were studying in Australia in 2015, more than 10 per cent more than the previous year.
The largest number of students – more than 270,000 – are doing higher education courses. However, the number of vocational education students is increasing fast, up 14 per cent to about 170,000.
Federal International Education Minister Richard Colbeck said the lower dollar was having a real impact on international student numbers. He said many of Australia's student source countries were very cost-sensitive markets and responded to a better exchange rate.
Alex Frino, dean of Macquarie Graduate School of Management, said econometric analysis revealed a strong correlation between the value of the Australian dollar and numbers of international students studying in university.
Professor Frino, who has just been announced as the next deputy vice-chancellor (global strategy) of the University of Wollongong, said a 10 cent fall in the $A led to a 2 per cent rise in the number of new international students enrolling in universities. He predicted that in 11 years' time, universities alone could have half a million international students enrolled.
The 13 per cent increase in education exports in 2015 followed 14 per cent growth in 2014, raising concerns about the sustainability of the sector.
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