The university sector, which has been devastated by Covid-19, has welcomed the news that international students might return to Australia as early as December this year if pilot programs in New South Wales (NSW), and Victoria are approved. Nevertheless, some students who are stranded abroad are anxious about the cost of repatriation, as well as the possibility that certain degrees, such as medicine and engineering, may be prioritized over others. The reaction comes as demand data from IDP Connect, the world’s largest course database, indicates Australia has fallen behind Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in terms of desired locations.
Australia’s tight border controls have had a significant impact on the sector, with international enrolments down by 2,10,000 this year and just 1,30,000 international students learning online. The industry’s backbone was international student revenue, which poured $40 billion into its coffers in 2019. Universities will lose 6%, or $2.2 billion, in 2020, according to a Mitchell Institute analysis released in August.
The governments of New South Wales, and Victoria launched pilot schemes to attract students back into the nation this week. In New South Wales, 250 students would be allowed to return every two weeks, whereas, in Victoria, the number will be limited to 120 students each week in the beginning.
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration has approved both the Coronavac (Sinovac) and Covishield (the Indian-made AstraZeneca) vaccines for arriving overseas travellers this week, bolstering this development. Each state will have its own quarantine system. While students in NSW will be free, universities in Victoria will pick who pays the $5,000 bill.
Some overseas students are concerned that, in addition to their hefty tuition fees and living expenses, they will have to pay outrageous amounts to return. Stella Quang, President of the Deakin Vietnamese International Students & Extension club, said that “while the news was welcomed, Vietnamese students were concerned about prices. How much will mandatory quarantine cost if it is implemented? Will [the criteria] differ for persons who have received Covid in the past vs those who have had a vaccine?”
She added, “students were particularly concerned about which degrees will be given priority entrance.” Quang further explained, “We’re taking online classes and paying full tuition. I’m studying media and communications, and all of my classes are available online. I’m not on a priority list for returning, but I’ve paid a high price for the privilege of being there, using the infrastructure, and experiencing on-campus firsthand.”
Dr Alison Barnes, President of the National Tertiary Education Union, welcomed the return of overseas students but raised concern about the sector’s reliance on them. “The reliance on international student fees to fill budget deficits in teaching and research drove the widespread Covid-19 problem in the institutions, which resulted in the layoff of 35,000 faculty members,” Barnes said. “We can’t just go back to that model,” he added.
According to IDP Connect research, Australia’s share of the global market for overseas students has dropped from 16.8% to 11.6 per cent in just two years. “Two years ago, Australia had 20% of the market, which had put Australia ahead of the US, on pace with the UK, and behind Canada,” said Andrew Wharton, client director at IDP. He further said that the “demand has plummeted to 9 per cent.”
He believes Australia can buck the trend by articulating a clear plan to international students and encouraging them to study in industries where there is a scarcity of workers.