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Feature: The student shutout

One of the first major consequences of the border lockdown to combat COVID-19 was the huge drop in international students at Australian universities. The effects reach way beyond the classrooms and lecture theatres.

Feature: The student shutout
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  • AFlores
  • September 11, 2020
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In a world long before the novel coronavirus, international students contributed over $38 billion to the Australian economy each year, supporting over 130,000 Australian jobs as well as enriching the social fabric of the nation, according to a recent research paper from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute.

But since the Australian government shut its borders earlier this year, international students have been left high and dry in more ways than one. Those outside of the country have not been able to enter Australia due to its border lockdown. Meanwhile, international students in Australia remain trapped and without support – ineligible for the government’s range of stimulus measures aimed at keeping the economy afloat. Many of them even joined queues not dissimilar to the ones at Centrelink immediately following the shutdown for much-needed food relief. 

Losses to the Australian economy

Education policy fellow for the Mitchell Institute, Peter Hurley, predicts that the university sector faces cumulative losses of up to $19 billion over the next three years due to lost revenue from international students. The losses become much deeper once the effect on the wider Australian economy is taken into account.

“The Australian economy could lose more than $40 billion by 2023 because of reduced numbers of higher education international students,” Mr Hurley says.

Such predicted losses indicate that the loss of international students is not just a problem for universities. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that for every $1 lost in university tuition fees, another $1.15 is lost in the broader economy due to international student spending. The Mitchell Institute estimated that every year international students spend $5.5 billion on property and another $5.5 billion on retail and hospitality.

Further, the Mitchell Institute research found that international students make up over 30 per cent of the resident population in many suburbs.

“In April 2019, 46,480 international students arrived or returned to Australia. In April 2020, this had fallen to 30,” Mr Hurley says. “Every six months international students cannot enrol because of travel bans, approximately 110,000 to 140,000 international students don’t start their courses.

“This is like losing the equivalent population of either Darwin, Ballarat, or Toowoomba every six months.”

Luring international students back

Perhaps in recognition of the significant amount of revenue international students provide to the Australian economy, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in June that international students would be allowed back into Australia on a “pilot basis”. However, there are continued concerns that this may not be enough to buoy the struggling sector.

One big factor behind any potential recovery is China, the country that is consistently Australia’s number one source of international students and was the first country to be hit with a travel ban to Australia. According to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, there were 164,693 students from China in April, comprising just over a quarter (27 per cent) of all international students in Australia.However, a statement from China’s Education Bureau hasn’t helped the situation. It issued a warning to Chinese students to assess the risks of studying in Australia, in particular around “racist incidents against Asians” during the crisis.

In response, Mr Morrison said the claims of danger to Chinese nationals were “rubbish” and an attempt at “coercion”.

“Australia provides the best tourism and education products in the world and I know that is compelling,” he said. “One thing Australia will always do is act in our national interest and never be intimidated by threats.”

On top of this, Australia took the lead by demanding an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, of which the Chinese ambassador in Canberra responded by suggesting that the Chinese public might boycott Australian products or not visit Australia in the future.

Despite the warnings from the Chinese government and the continued diplomatic row between Canberra and Beijing, several reports from international students from China reveal a defence of Australia as a desirable study destination. One Chinese international student told the ABC that the warning was more a reflection of increasing diplomatic tensions between the two countries rather than any genuine concern from the Chinese government for its students.

Research from Angela Lehmann of international higher education consultancy The Lygon Group also found that international students had mostly positive things to say about Australia following a range of interviews with international students.

“Something I have learned here is about a sense of community, about being kind to others. I love Australia and the people I have met so far,” said a student from Peru in Ms Lehmann’s research. “Once all this is over, I will go back to my home country and teach them about what I have learned here.”

However, Ms Lehmann also warns that negative experiences of international students are more dangerous to long-term recovery than any border closures and flight restrictions. She says at a time of increased unemployment and pessimistic economic forecasts, Australia is at risk of growing anti-foreigner sentiment.

It was on 4 April, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for temporary visa holders to “go home” if they couldn’t support themselves, that Ms Lehmann found that students went from feeling a part of their community to feeling unwelcome. She says this was something that would need to change in order for international students to flock back to the country again.

“Each student suggested Australia’s reputation as a welcoming, safe and diverse place was what was going to shape how parents and prospective students made decisions about where to study after the crisis,” she says.

In addition, Ms Lehmann notes that international students want clear policy responses and acknowledgement of the valuable role they play in Australia.

“Australia’s flattened curve undoubtably works in our favour, giving us an advantage over the United States and the UK. However, the government’s support and welfare may shape how parents and prospective students make future decisions,” she says.

“Clear policy responses matter now. They offer a signal to students – current and future – that Australia recognises the importance of international students, and they are a welcome and supported part of our communities.”

Peter Hurley from the Mitchell Institute agrees, saying that continuing to involve international student representatives in the coronavirus response is essential.

“It equips policy makers with a better understanding of the issues facing international students,” he says. “It will also increase the effectiveness of initiatives that support a recovery in international student enrolments.”

Another crucial factor of any potential recovery of international students into Australia and – in turn – the recovery of the economy as a whole, will hinge on local students. Mr Hurley recommends policies that increase student capacity across the tertiary education sector need to be part of the response.

“With fewer resources from international student revenue, additional revenue from Australian students will help our tertiary education sector to offer the educational experiences Australia needs as part of the economic recovery.” 


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