However, real concerns about an erosion of the pipeline of on-shore students transferring on to HE were raised in a robust discussion at The PIE Live.
Chair of the International Education Association of Australia Phil Honeywood said he believes the country will see a “good dividend” due to the innovation and agility institutions have shown, competitive policies around post-study work arrangements and the management of the virus.
“We haven’t seen a student, a tourist or working holiday student basically since March”
Currently, Australia’s international borders remain closed and while this cautious approach is causing frustration to providers who believe Australia will miss out to countries such as Canada and the UK, Honeywood said the strong management of the pandemic is something that could be a key to giving Australia the edge down the track.
Honeywood also welcomed the announcement of pilot projects to commence this month to bring students back.
“We’re looking at pilot programs where South Australia and the Northern Territory have got permission from the federal government to bring returning students back into their states and happily we believe NSW will happen very soon as well.
“So we’re gradually bringing students back and we need to prove up the quarantine measures for them to the wider Australian community,” he said.
New concessions on student and post-study work visa arrangement have also been a shot in the arm for the sector with online off-shore study for eligible students to be counted towards post-study work rights meaning students may only have to undertake six months face-to-face study in Australia to qualify.
“[This] compares favourably to Canada which requires you to do half your course face-to-face and favourably to the UK’s one semester.
We also have a very good student visa flexibility package now which is also providing fee waivers and visa extensions at no cost for students who are in Australia and can’t go home or want to stay in Australia because of our health and safety policies and want to go on with studies.”
In further promising news for the sector, the National Council for International Education – comprising six federal ministers and 11 non-ministerial expert members, chaired by Honeywood – is working on a whole new strategy for international education for the next 10 years, which includes a governance structure which will see all state and territory governments participate.
“We’re gradually bringing students back and we need to prove up the quarantine measures for them”
While the federal government’s support of international students stuck in Australia has drawn criticism for its timeliness and lack of coordination, the whole of country response to student welfare has been praised.
“We had to rely on individual education providers, state governments, city governments and to some extent the federal government… but I’ve been incredibly surprised by how well different welfare provisions have come forward,” said Honeywood.
“This includes no eviction policies in every state, food vouchers, shopping vouchers, and many other provisions for students who are caught here and can’t return home. So overall we’ve had some swings and roundabouts but we’re coping with the pandemic fairly well.”
The sentiment was echoed by fellow panellist Tayyeb Shah deputy vice-chancellor (Global Partnerships) at The University of Western Australia who said this joint approach has helped foster relationships and goodwill.
“The [UWA] alumni got together and organised a fund, an SOS – Save our Students – fund, which involved staff, students and the wider community contribution to that. It’s been positive to see.
And when one looks at places like Study Perth, the community organisations, the Indian community, Chinese, Malaysian community all rallied around to support and we’ve forged wonderful links with these community organisations as a consequence.”
Austrade’s recent survey of international students in Australia also provided positive feedback.
80% of the 7,500 students surveyed said they’d like to stay in Australia to complete study and work and are committed to doing that, and two-thirds still see their experience in Australia as a positive one, despite the impacts of the pandemic, revealed Austrade’s Helen Kronberger.
Diversifying offerings and keeping international students who are unable to travel to Australia in the foreseeable future engaged and committed has become a key focus for many institutions,.
Rupesh Singh, founder and Group CEO at Education Centre of Australia, said they moved 7,000 students from face-to-face to online learning and initial results were impressive, with three times increased participation in academic courses compared with last term, with satisfaction and interaction up.
Singh said they are now offering additional incentives such as free English language support courses and free subjects to students to try and maintain the interest.
“It’s understood they’ll be deferring if the borders aren’t open so we’re keeping students engaged and making sure they’re not losing time.
“We are offering free subjects including undergraduate, or postgraduate subjects which they can get credit for when they do come to Australia,” he said.
Singh said it is promising that students are still deferring rather than cancelling their study and that the clarity around post-study work visa arrangements has also helped increase student confidence.
“These continual rolling deferrals that could overload the whole system”
However, Mark Lucas from global student recruiter iae GLOBAL warned that while deferrals may be a positive sign now, it could lead to trouble in the future if not managed well.
“These continual rolling deferrals that could overload the whole system. The big issue then is you’re also getting new students who are graduating applying. The risk there is you move into competitive entry.”
Alternatively, he believes there’ll be a large hole another part of the market – students who come in via alternative channels, with up to 40% of international students coming through some sort of pre-program.
“It may have started with a kid coming in on a working holiday visa then doing English language or maybe a vocational program.
“That pool of students will not be there next year because we haven’t seen a student, a tourist or working holiday student basically since March,” he added.