The taskforce – a panel of council of universities and education providers – have met with education minister Dan Tehan and trade minister Simon Birmingham to discuss how they can limit the impact on the AUS$38 billion dollar industry.
In excess of 100,000 international students remain stranded offshore after the Australian government banned foreign nationals entering from China for 14 days from February 1 in an effort to minimise the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19).
Orientation week for many Australian universities commences on February 24.
“We’re pleased that the Chinese government has agreed to relax its internet restrictions to allow students who are banned from entering Australia to commence their studies online,” Honeywood told The PIE.
“This is something that hasn’t been easy to achieve in the past so we welcome the move.” Online study has been suggested as an interim measure to ensure Chinese students can start programs as planned remotely.
Honeywood said learning options, regulatory flexibility and student visas were major discussion points – but also flagged up concerns around a visa issuance freeze while the coronavirus crisis continues.
“It appears no student visas have been issued since the travel ban”
“It appears no student visas have been issued since the travel ban started on February 1,” he said. “There is no logistical reason for this and we’re in negotiation with the federal government to lift the visa approval freeze.”
Hardest hit by the travel ban is the “Group of Eight” – which comprises Australia’s leading research-intensive universities. Chief executive of the Go8, Vicki Thompson, said they account for 63% of enrolments from Chinese nationals studying in Australia.
“Given the Go8’s exposure, it can be deduced that most of these students [who are stranded] are ours. This is potentially a financial hit estimated by S&P Global at up to AUS$3 billion for all universities.”
The economic impact isn’t contained to just the higher education sector, with Thompson quoting a recent London Economics study showing that for every three international students studying at a Go8 university, the broader economic impact for Australia is a positive $1m.
Regulatory bodies TEQSA and ASQA are promising maximum flexibility on a provider to provider level around start dates, online learning and other options for students.
“With the support of these bodies, universities have been able to put in place a range of measures,” said Honeywood.
“Monash [the country’s biggest university] has pushed back the commencement of semester 1 for all students, while the University of New South Wales is offering to roll enrolments over from its first to second trimester and Australian National University (ANU) has announced a special winter semester.”
The Global Reputation Taskforce acknowledged that once the travel bans have been lifted and Chinese students start returning to campuses, there will be longer term issues to deal with.
“We’re looking to ensure all things such as deferment fees, additional visa fees and post study work right visas are facilitated in a way that doesn’t disadvantage the students,” said Honeywood. “We’re pleased to see the government has an appetite for providing this type of regulatory fee support.”
“We need to let them know, that we care, that their health and mental wellbeing are important to us”
Individual student welfare is also a focus for the taskforce. “In addition to practicalities including student housing availability, we also need to ensure these students are supported,” said Honeywood.
“We need to let them know, that we care, that their health and mental wellbeing are important to us and that Australia is still an attractive and welcoming place.”
Other prominent stakeholders echoed this, with the premier of Western Australia calling out reported racist behaviour as ‘disgraceful and un-Australian’.
StudyPerth said now was the time to rally behind communities that are feeling the effects of the outbreak and extend a helping hand.
Phil Payne, CEO at StudyPerth, commented, “I feel particularly for the thousands of Chinese students who have been prevented from commencing or resuming their studies in Western Australia.
“I look forward to an early resolution of this outbreak, and a lifting of the travel restrictions, so we can welcome these students with open arms into the Western Australian community.”