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Aus must offer int’l students a solid “return on investment” – AAERI

Australia must reduce international student fees, improve post-study work options and refocus universities if it wants to be a destination of choice in a post-Covid-19 world, according to speakers at the recent Association of Australian Education Representatives in India virtual convention.

Improved PSW options could make Australia competitive against countries such as Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Photo: Pexels

"Students will not defer indefinitely... especially when competing countries are opening their doors"

During the convention entitled Roadmap to Recovery, AAERI president Ravi L Singh announced a range of recommendations he’ll be presenting to the Australian government.

“All international fees for 2021 for continuing students need to be reduced by a minimum of 25%”

As well as looking to the future, he outlined what is needed immediately to support the tens of thousands of onshore students right now who have been impacted by the pandemic.

Singh cited several concerns for the welfare of students following the release of a survey that showed 61% of working students had lost their jobs, one-third of students reported going without food quite often to pay rent and only 13% providers had reduced fees in response to the pandemic.

“All international fees for 2021 for continuing students need to be reduced by a minimum of 25%, and students who are currently studying part of the course in online mode should be further subsidised. This is not really what they came for,” said Singh.

“Yes this the best that they can get at this point in time but I’ve seen students being charged amenities fees when they aren’t really on the campus at all,” Singh added.

He said all students currently in Australia should be offered one extra year of post-study work on completion of their course.

Singh also called for the governments to make public transport completely free for students for the next year to provide some relief to struggling students, noting that subsidised transport for international students is an issue that has been lobbied for unsuccessfully in some states for years.

Speaking during the convention, Australian high commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, said an estimated AUD$1.3 billion had been pledged by the federal, state and territory governments in Australia, alongside education providers and the broader community to support international students during the Covid-19 crisis.

“This includes welfare services, financial assistance, mental health support and emergency relief initiatives,” he explained.

O’Farrell also said the Australian government has introduced a range of flexible visa measures to assist current and prospective students including accepting applications for post-study work visa outside Australia, counting online study towards post-study work visa requirements, and an extension of student working hours in sectors critical to the Covid-19 response.

In recent weeks, the federal government has been working with states and territories and educational institutions on pilot projects to allow international students to return, although the recently announced South Australia program hasn’t yet received final approval.

However, when pressed about the inclusion of Indian students in those pilots, O’Farrell could not give any guarantees.

“As we know travel from India is currently subject to certain conditions imposed by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs as well as those from governments the destination countries,” he noted.

“Malaysia and Singapore, important transit hubs for Australia, have still not opened their ports for Indian citizens.”

O’Farrell said while it is possible that by mid to late September India will commence regular flights to other countries, there doesn’t seem enough certainty to plan a pilot for Indian students just yet.

Looking to the future, Singh said the two countries have a strong relationship, elevated recently to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

But, he said, if Australia wants to remain attractive and competitive against countries such as Canada, New Zealand and the UK, it must offer more to international students and demonstrate a solid “return on investment” for the student.

“First and foremost we need a strategy from the government for the students in both scenarios – with or without a vaccine,” Singh explained.

“Students will not defer indefinitely, and especially they will not defer indefinitely when competing countries are opening their doors and travel arrangements are falling into place.”

Singh said the disparity in fees particularly needs to be addressed: “Recent reforms announced indicate that the cost of STEM degrees for domestic students is being reduced quite significantly. There are degrees for which a domestic student pays only three to five thousand dollars a year now.

“This would mean that in the post-Covid era, international students will sometimes be paying even five times more than domestic students – that’s a bit too much. As universities have grown so too have doubts about return on investment.”

Singh said he is calling for rationalisation of fees for international students, taking into account the exchange rate and believes for Australia to remain competitive in the next few years fees need to be brought down.

“Not a discount but absolutely a fresh reboot and fresh consideration. It could be even up to 25% across the board,” he suggested.

Singh said that improved PSW options are also required, including an additional year of PSW for larger cities (not just regional areas), and PSW provisions for those undertaking postgraduate diplomas or master’s degrees, and even TAFE qualifications, in line with what is being offered by Canada, New Zealand and the UK.

He said he would like to see 25% of the migration quota set aside for graduating students.

“Those students who have studied in Australia, invested in Australia, have studied for years, paid fees plus living expenses. We need to promise them a little bit more.

“These students are graduating with local experience, have soaked in the local culture, their qualification is also local and I believe it’s time to ask for a 25% quota to be set aside,” he said.

““Those students who have studied in Australia, invested in Australia… We need to promise them a little bit more”

One final recommendation, Singh said, is that it’s time for universities to “refocus”.

“Universities should solely focus on what they do best which is teaching and research. Over the last few years, universities roles have also got a little complicated.

The Home Affairs expected them to do the genuine temporary entrant checks and Streamlined Visa Processing,  much of which is not necessarily a university’s expertise.

“It’s high time to let Australian universities, which are already right now threatened by funding and other resources, just concentrate on what a university is meant to be doing,” he added.

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