According to the country’s Department of Home Affairs, Australian offshore student visa numbers dropped by a third (33.5%) in the 2019-2020 financial year compared to the previous year, with an 88% drop in applications in May alone.
Universities in Australia have often been warned about their dependence on international tuition fees as a source of revenue; a recent report found this cohort accounted for an average of 26.2% of an institution’s revenue, and in some cases as high as 40%.
Anticipating fewer international students arriving due to Covid-19 has led many institutions to scale back spending or shutting facilities in an attempt to save money.
While the majority of the decline in the DHA’s latest data can be attributed to Covid-19, the figures show that even pre-pandemic there were 9% fewer applications than in the same period the year before.
In terms of onshore student visa lodgement, there has been a 10% increase in the number of applications, with Nepal and India seeing increases of 36% and 39% respectively.
IEAA CEO Phil Honeywood said the organisation was “happily surprised” that key market China has only retracted by 19.9% compared with the previous period. However, India dropped by 46% and Nepal was down more than 60%.
“We have to ask some questions: why is it so? And are these students actually going to other markets such as the UK?” said Honeywood during an AIEC webinar.
“Or are these students concerned about post-study work visa applications, which we hadn’t clarified with the visa flexibility package at the time the data was being put together.”
Honeywood added that it might also be the case that due to the financial impact of the pandemic, some students in certain source countries did not have the funds to pay for a student visa.
“The other point is that Australia overall has been containing the virus much better than most other countries. That’s a plus point, but my Indian friends say the borders stayed closed too long,” he added.
Honeywood said more investigation is needed to unpick this pattern of student behaviour, a suggestion that was echoed by webinar attendees via social media.
Additionally, Australia has so far noted a substantial rise in student deferments in 2020, involving either a delayed commencement or a temporary suspension of an existing enrolment.
For the year-to-date May 2020, there were 60,870 deferments – 45,597 more than in 2019
According to government data for the year-to-date May 2020, there were 60,870 deferments – approximately 45,500 more than in the same period in 2019.
Of the total deferred enrolments, 12% (7,355) of students had since resumed studying, another 58% (35,318) had deferred their start date to the second half of 2020, and 22% (13,392) had either deferred their starting date to 2021 or beyond.
The largest number of deferments came from students in China, with an increase of 35,615 in deferments from 2019 to 2020, followed by India (1,924).
Earlier this week, a pilot scheme that would see 300 overseas students return to South Australia in September was announced by the country’s trade minister, a move that was widely welcomed by the sector.
Honeywood at IEAA said: “We‘re pushing hard on the federal government to allow states and territories that have contained the virus start bringing back international students.”
He explained that a new survey from Deloitte had suggested that not many international students are planning to change from Australia to another country.
“For example, only 6% of Chinese students intended to come to Australia have decided this point in time that they won’t come to Australia.
“[According to the survey] that is because we have a world-class health system, we’re likely to have quicker economic recovery than some of the countries that we’re competing against and also there is a strong desire for face to face and not online learning to continue,” Honeywood explained.
“We need to look at more comprehensive transnational education and school sector strategies”
However, Honeywood added that there are certain areas where Australia “needs to play catch up”.
“I think one of the lessons we’ve learnt from this pandemic is we need to look at more comprehensive transnational education and school sector strategies, as we’re finding more and more international high schools are teaching Canadian and UK matriculation year 12 university entry certificates.
“I think it’s been too easy for Australia in the past to rely on students coming to study in Australia itself, and not really have any offshore campuses,” he added.