Data Bite #02: The shift to off-campus, online study

Our Data Bites series provides digestible, bite-sized insights on a current issue by taking a close look at some key statistics. In this Data Bite, we look back at two decades of data on postgraduate enrolments in Australian higher education and examine the changing patterns of on-campus and off-campus study.


The ongoing disruptions to university campuses around the world in the face of COVID-19 has forced millions of university students temporarily to engage in remote study instead of attending face-to-face classes. This raises the question: will this represent a tipping point, leading to a demand for more study to be online and off-campus?

Until now, tertiary education providers have identified postgraduate programs as the most suitable for off-campus study, but what does the data tell us about pre-pandemic take-up of online courses? More significantly, what might these trends suggest in terms of how higher education might respond once students again have a choice whether to opt for on-campus or off-campus degrees?

Key Findings

  • Off-campus enrolment has increased mostly outside the Group of Eight universities. It makes sense for any sector-wide moves to increase the provision of off-campus, online study to be led by those institutions with most experience.
  • Domestic students are increasingly interested in off-campus study, while the off-campus intake of international students remains comparatively low. There may well be a need to pay particular attention to developing off-campus, online study options that cater for international students outside Australia.
  • Off-campus enrolments have increased primarily in three areas of study: health, society and culture, and education. Universities need to focus on off-campus, online study options in subject areas such as IT, engineering and other technical subjects, especially for domestic students.

A Note on the Data Sources

This Data Bite offers a new analysis of higher education enrolment data from 2001 to 2018, available from the Australian Higher Education Statistics Collection. The data set is available publicly through the Higher Education Data Cube (uCube).

The data can be disaggregated by the student characteristics of gender and citizenship category, and the course characteristics of level of study, field of study and institution attended. For the purposes of this report, we split course enrolments into two groups according to their mode of attendance.

  • On-campus: students attending all classes on campus, labelled as internal students in the data set
  • Off-campus: a combination of different types of enrolment, with students studying off-campus for all/substantial proportions of their degrees, labelled as external or multi-modal in the data set

Data on students’ completion of course of study were also available. We found no notable differences between relative levels of enrolment and completion. We also analysed all data in terms of gender and found no notable differences.

Before being made publicly available, the data were subject to some statistical procedures to protect anonymity. As a result, the sum of disaggregated enrolments and completions may not be the same as the reported totals.

Headline Patterns and Trends

Figure 1: Commencing on- and off-campus enrolment between 2001 and 2018

Enrolments in off-campus postgraduate courses have risen steadily over the past seventeen years, from 26,281 in 2001 to 63,480 in 2018. However, beneath these headline trends a number of notable differences are apparent.

1. Off-campus enrolment has increased mostly outside the Group of Eight universities

Increased levels of off campus enrolment have occurred primarily outside the Group of Eight (Go8) universities.

Off-campus enrolments in non-Go8 universities increased steadily from 19,909 in 2001 to 58,176 in 2018. On-campus enrolments for these universities followed a similar trajectory, increasing from 46,945 in 2001 to 102,257 in 2018. This means that the balance between off-campus and on-campus enrolments in non-Go8 universities has remained relatively stable over time.

In contrast, off-campus enrolments in Go8 universities (5,716 in 2001 and 8,684 in 2018) increased at a far slower pace than on-campus enrolments (which increased from 23,793 in 2001 to 60,399 in 2018). These figures show a relative decrease in the proportion of off-campus students in Go8 universities.

Figure 2: Commencing on- and off-campus enrolment in Go8 and non-Go8 universities between 2001 and 2018

2. Domestic students are more likely to study off-campus than international students

The shift to off-campus study primarily involves domestic students.

In 2018, the majority of new domestic student enrolments were in off-campus programs (52,822 students compared to 46,252 opting for on-campus programs).

This marks a sharp turnaround from the situation in 2001, when the large majority of domestic students (44,720) opted for on-campus programs, with only 20,659 choosing to study off-campus.

In contrast, the number of international students opting for on-campus degrees has risen significantly (from 26,018 in 2001 to 95,770 in 2018), but the corresponding change in off-campus degrees has been far more modest (rising from 5,622 in 2001 to 10,658 in 2018).

It is worth noting that international students who are in Australia on a student visa must be enrolled full-time in a course of study and attend the majority of their classes face-to-face, on campus. International students who wish to study fully online can only do so if they remain based overseas, or are in Australia on other than a student visa. Therefore, the off-campus study enrolment figures for international students mainly reflect the uptake of individual subjects for students overseas.

Figure 3: Commencing on- and off-campus enrolment by students’ citizenship category between 2001 and 2018

3. Increases in off-campus enrolment differ greatly between subject areas

Off-campus enrolments have increased primarily in three areas of study: health-related subjects (rising from 3,861 enrolments in 2001 to 15,063 in 2018), subjects related to society and culture (from 3,631 in 2001 to 15,490 in 2018) and education-related subjects (from 5,209 in 2001 to 11,418 in 2018).

Off-campus enrolments constitute the majority of students studying health-related subjects since 2009, and the majority of students studying in education-related subjects since 2016.

In contrast, the increase in off-campus enrolments has been slow in most other areas of study. Most notably, growth in enrolment levels in information technology and in engineering and related technologies has occurred primarily in on-campus programs.

Off-campus enrolments in information technology subjects have experienced a small increase, from 1,454 in 2001 to 2,203 in 2018. Remarkably, on-campus enrolments in this area increased 269 per cent between 2015 and 2018, while off-campus enrolment increased a modest fifty-four per cent during the same period.

Similarly, off-campus enrolments in engineering and related technologies have increased from 955 in 2001 to only 1,850 in 2018.

Nonetheless, the rapid increase in on-campus enrolments in both information technology and in engineering and related technologies is mainly driven by increases in international student enrolments. For example, in 2018 international students made up ninety per cent and seventy-five per cent of on-campus enrolments, respectively.

There is limited demographic data on this data set. Nonetheless, off-campus enrolments for international students are consistently low for all subject areas. Additionally, there are no notable differences in on-campus and off-campus enrolments within areas by gender or citizenship status.

Figure 4: Commencing on- and off-campus enrolment by subject area between 2001 and 2018

So What? Points for Further Discussion

These data provide a partial glimpse of how postgraduate enrolments in higher education have changed since 2001 as the provision of technology-supported off-campus courses has increased.

Any concluding discussion needs to remain mindful of the limitations of the available data sets. Most notably, trends in off-campus, online postgraduate enrolments are not generalisable to undergraduate enrolments and off-campus does not necessarily mean online.

Also, more attention needs to be given to possible demographic differences in students’ engagement in on-campus and off-campus courses. The available data show no notable differences in enrolment patterns in terms of gender or citizenship beyond differences between subject areas (consistent across on-campus and off-campus modes of provision). However, there is no comparable data for differences in terms of students’ age, educational background, socio-economic status and other possible confounding factors.

Nevertheless, the patterns and trends identified in these data do highlight a number of issues to bear in mind when considering the nature of future higher education provision.

Indeed, the COVID-19 shutdown of university campuses in 2020 raises a number of longer-term possibilities for higher education providers – not least, how best to meet possible increased demands and/or expectations for off-campus, online courses.

The Federal Government has already asked Australian universities to increase their capacity to provide short online courses for adults looking to re-skill in national priority areas such as information technology and nursing. This form of course provision might rise in importance in subsequent years as Australia deals with the expected economic downturn.

The ongoing situation has forced universities to provide online programs as the main form of instruction for the foreseeable future. After the pandemic, more institutions, including Go8 universities, will have the infrastructure in place to incorporate off-campus, online course delivery. Current students across universities and subject areas will have experienced some form of off-campus, online teaching. With this, traditional barriers to off-campus enrolments (such as perceived lower status or low quality of tuition) may recede.

The ongoing impact on demand for Australian higher education from international students is still to emerge. In light of changing travel and border controls, there may be increased demand from international students to enrol as off-campus students. However, this will depend on government regulations regarding the provision of off-campus courses for international students and on the ability of Australian universities to attract these students in the absence of potential immigration benefits from such enrolments.

There may also be an increased enthusiasm from university staff for teaching online, especially among those with little previous experience of off-campus course delivery. Given this, we have a number of suggestions arising from our analysis.

  • It makes sense for any sector-wide moves to increase the provision of off-campus, online courses to be led by those institutions with the most experience. For postgraduate online courses, the bulk of existing provision exists within non-Group of Eight universities, along with specialist organisations such as Open Universities Australia.
  • If universities are accustomed to providing off-campus course delivery primarily to domestic students, they may need to pay particular attention to developing off-campus, online programs that cater for international students. We know from the development of on-campus programs that these student groups have specific, additional educational needs that should not be overlooked in any switch over to online teaching, if this becomes a possibility.
  • Although priority areas such as health may have a good track-record in off-campus, online provision, this is not the case in other subjects. There is a need for universities to focus on off-campus, online delivery in subject areas such as information technology, engineering and other technical subjects. Inter-faculty collaborations between these areas and colleagues in health and education might be a useful way to share ideas and experiences.

Further Reading

Hurley, P. & Van Dyke, N., (2020) Australian Investment in Education: Higher Education. Melbourne, Mitchell Institute.

Norton, A., Cherastidtham, I. & Mackey, W. (2018) Mapping Australian higher education. Melbourne, Grattan Institute

Stone, C., Freeman, E., Dyment, J., Muir. T., & Milthorpe N. (2019) ‘Equal or equitable? The role of flexibility within online education’, Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 29, pp.78–92

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Data Bite #02: The shift to off-campus, online study


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