After COVID isolation, Australia struggles to bring students back

Australian universities are facing huge losses as international students look elsewhere to study despite reopened borders.

Australian universities are facing huge losses as many international students look to other countries to study [File: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Last year, Pakistani student Alee Khalid paid Southern Cross University 8,000 Australian dollars ($5,923) to study computer science on the mutually held assumption Australia’s borders would soon reopen.

But as the pandemic dragged on and Australia remained closed to foreigners, Khalid’s only option was to study online.

“They forced me to study virtually even though I said I didn’t want to because the internet in my village is unreliable and I would have to wake up at 3am to attend classes,” Khalid, 21, who is waiting on approval of a student visa, told Al Jazeera.

“I want to study in Australia and experience all the country has to offer – not receive a poor education online. I applied for my visa nine months ago but there is still no reply from the Australian embassy. When I asked the university for help, they said they can’t do anything. It’s disgusting how they have treated me.”

Southern Cross University said it does not comment publicly on individual students but that it is the student’s responsibility, not the university’s, to fulfil visa requirements. The university, which is based in northern New South Wales, also pointed out the Australian government’s border closures introduced in March 2020 had forced international students to remain overseas.

Khalid’s case highlights a predicament for Australia’s universities, which heavily depend on international students’ fees: although Australia has been open to international students and other foreigners since December, thousands still remain overseas, and at least some of those are likely to give up waiting and go study elsewhere.

About 56,000 international students have already arrived in Australia to begin or resume studies since Australia reopened its borders, and another 50,000 have applied for student visas. But 120,000 are still abroad for a host of reasons. Chinese students, for example, cannot leave their country because of lockdowns and ongoing border closures amid surging COVID-19 cases.

“Some of them won’t come back,” Universities Australia CEO Catriona Jackson told Al Jazeera.

‘Turn the tap back on’

That could be an understatement. Only 58 percent of international students currently enrolled at Australian universities plan on returning to campuses this year, with 41 percent of those planning to study elsewhere, according to a recent survey by student support service provider Studiosity.

“Australia’s institutions were fully aware that the policy settings that have been in place for the past two years meant it would be difficult to simply turn the tap back on,” Andrew Barkla, CEO of international education support organisation IDP, told Al Jazeera.

“Students have grown tired of waiting to return,” said Barkla, whose organisation argues Australia’s reputation suffered immeasurable damage due to its strict border policies during the pandemic.

Spurred by government policies that pushed them to be more like private enterprises, Australia’s 39 universities, nearly all of which are state-owned, experienced an almost unbroken run of international student enrolments from the 1990s.

By 2019, 27 percent of on-campus students were international students, according to the Department of Education. The share of international students at Australia’s top-ranked school, the University of Melbourne, hit 40 percent. At the University of Sydney, the proportion hit 42 percent.

Revenue from international students surged from 25 billion Australian dollars ($18.5bn) in 2009 to just below 37 billion Australian dollars ($27.4bn) in 2019, helping make higher education Australia’s third-largest export behind iron ore and coal, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“It’s lucrative. Very lucrative. No doubt about that,” Peter Hurley, a policy fellow at the Mitchell Institute of Education and Health Policy at Victoria University, told Al Jazeera.

“Income from every international student is two to three times higher than domestic students. No university in Australia can survive now without international students. Whether it’s sustainable is another question.”

COVID-19, which hit Australia only weeks before the start of the 2020 teaching year, bolstered the argument that it was not.

Any international student who had returned home for the summer break was unable to return. Enrolments of international students fell 7 percent that year compared with 2019 and fell by another 17 percent last year – while the number of students applying to study at Australian universities dropped by more than half between March and October of last year, according to Adventus, an international student recruitment marketplace.

Australia Chinese students
Chinese students enrolled at Australian universities are unable to return due to the country’s strict pandemic policies [File: Jason Reed/Reuters]

Combined university revenues fell by 6 percent, or 2.2 billion Australian dollars ($1.63bn) in 2020, according to the Mitchell Institute.

Figures for 2021 are not yet available but are widely expected to be worse, while estimates suggest current revenue from international students may be half of what it was in 2019.

“There’s no pretending we have not had a really hard time in the last two years,” said Jackson of Universities Australia. “We’re not out of the woods yet but the pandemic has proved our universities are resilient.”

The Australian government has introduced a range of initiatives to bring international students back. These include visa application fee refunds, the removal of caps on the number of hours they can work while studying, and extensions on how long they can live and work in Australia after they graduate from their courses.

At the same time, some Australian universities are opening new campuses in Asia, the source of most of Australia’s international students.

The University of Newcastle, which has had a presence in Singapore for more than 20 years, opened a new campus in the city-state in February. Set on the 13th floor of Singapore’s National Library, the campus offers degrees in business, engineering, IT and health, and serves as a halfway house for international students from China.

“We have a programme where students did their first two years in China and second two years in Australia,” global vice chancellor Kent Anderson told Al Jazeera. “Now we’ve tweaked it to allow them to do one semester in Singapore before Australia to deliver a truly transnational education.

“We also have many students who left China before their border closed and Australia’s opened who are doing a semester in Singapore. Having a campus in Asia helps us be creative like that,” Anderson said.

On Saturday, Monash University will formally open a new campus in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Offering postgraduate courses in data science, public policy, urban design and business innovation, it will be the first international university in Indonesia.

“Our purpose is to contribute to the success of education in Indonesia. We are not there to be a recruiting machine for Monash campuses in Australia,” Monash University Indonesia president Andrew MacIntyre told Al Jazeera.

“Having said that, it is definitely possible for a student to start a degree in Jakarta and finish it in Australia, and vice versa. And I think that just by having a presence in Indonesia, we help promote the quality and value of an Australian education.”

Timetable for recovery

The higher education sector figures that spoke to Al Jazeera unanimously agreed that Australia’s universities would bounce back, if only because of surging demand for foreign education in developing markets like China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The one thing they disagreed on is how long the recovery would take.

Jackson at Universities Australia said the sector could rebound “fairly soon” – a view espoused by many cash-strapped universities.

But Hurley at the Mitchell Institute said it would not be so easy.

“It probably won’t be until 2026 or 2027 – five years from now – until Australian universities have the same number of international students as they did in 2019,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera