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Australia risks creating a ‘hierarchy’ of international student mobility

Australia’s policies for international students during the Covid-19 pandemic have created a “hierarchy” of international student mobility, according to stakeholders who suggest more needs to be done to plan for an equitable recovery for all students.

Students are divided into groups that are either locked out, locked in, left out, or the lucky ones, the stakeholders suggest. Photo: pexels

There seems to be no window of opportunity in sight for those who are not vaccinated with an Australia’s TGA approved vaccine

Analysis from international education consultancy, The Lygon Group, has noted that experience for international students has been not only shaped by Australia’s border closure policies.

Angela Lehmann and Varsha Balakrishnan highlighted that different structural factors, including the universities that the students are enrolled in and the courses that they are studying, have impacted students’ access. 

“Even the prompt reopening of the national border does not remove the inequalities experienced by international students during the pandemic,” they wrote.

“Many students are facing further structural barriers to their mobility that are unevenly distributed across the broader student community”

“Many students are facing further structural barriers to their mobility that are unevenly distributed across the broader student community.”

A four-tiered hierarchy of mobility among international students based on their ease of movement in and out of Australia. Students are now either locked out, locked in, left out – or they are the lucky ones, The Lygon Group contended.

Students in their last year studying courses which require lab study/practicals as a compulsory component have been given preference for entry into Australia, while international students who belong to countries or are stranded in countries where Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been administered, do not qualify for entry into Australia.

The same is the case with students who have taken some of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccines which do not meet the requirements. 

Regulatory requirements such as these have “arbitrarily created a barrier to their re-entering Australia” in addition to increasing the disparity among international students, point out Lehmann and Balakrishnan.

In each of the four categories of international students that they posit have emerged during this period, students have had to deal with different realities.

While some students have been able to come in under the NSW pilot plan, for the majority, the wait and the uncertainty continue.

The students who have been “locked out” and unable to enter have had to face many challenges. However, at the same time, it has not been easy for those who were in Australia before the border closures started and have remained “locked in”.

This category of students have not been able to go back to their home countries and visit their families, due to the risks of not being able to re-enter Australia for a considerable and unknown amount of time.

They have also had to cope with harsh financial realities, as they have had to deal with lack of job opportunities, negligible support from the system in the form of not being able to access benefits under schemes such as Job Seeker and Job Keeper, as well as social isolation.

At the same time, there seems to be no window of opportunity in sight for those who are not vaccinated with an Australia’s TGA approved vaccine. They have been “left out” for the time being, Lehmann and Balakrishnan suggested.

“The experience of Australia’s international students during the pandemic has not been equal,” Angela Lehmann, who is head of Research at The Lygon Group told the PIE.

“Students have experienced different challenges depending on a variety of factors including their country of origin, where they have been during the pandemic, their access to reliable information and to vaccines and tests. In an ideal scenario, students – regardless of where they are and where they are from – would have been provided with clear and consistent information throughout the ebbs and flows of the pandemic.

“A unified federal voice has been lacking and students have been left confused, anxious and frustrated”

“They would have received a national-level message of reassurance and of welcome. Unfortunately this has not been the case. Instead, state and territories have provided very different and shifting health and immigration regulations. A unified federal voice has been lacking and students have been left confused, anxious and frustrated.”

With a strong federal structure, states and territories have pursued policies which are not always in sync with that of the federal government. Sector leaders, such as IEAA CEO, Phil Honeywood have urged the state and federal governments to act more in-sync so as to give a consistent message to international students and restore confidence.

The PIE has previously reported on the stakes involved in managing the declining numbers of international students in Australian universities and on the concerns facing the sector in the country. It is estimated that the impact of the fall in numbers and revenues attributable to international education, might take much more than just a couple of years to recover completely — and the clock is ticking.

 As the Omicron wave peaks, international students are now reentering Australia, Lehmann continued.

“A lot rests on Australia’s ability to shift towards this clear and consistent messaging. Confusion breeds fear and the recovery of the sector very much relies on Australia being seen as a trusted host that will provide a safe experience for students.

“At this moment in time, part of the challenge is around Australia’s response to the variant generally. Access to PCR tests, RATs and to PPT is a basic and necessary first step to reassuring students and their families that Australia is a trusted first choice for international education.”

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