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Domestic attitude shift is silver lining to Australia’s woes

One silver lining of Covid and its devastating impact on the Australian international education sector has been a greater appreciation from domestic Australian and New Zealand students for the reality of internationals living and learning overseas.

A survey found 82% of Australia and New Zealand citizens reported in a change in attitude to the sense of separation and isolation internationals face. Photo: Unsplash

"There are quite a few visa issues that we have yet to really clarify in the minds of many students"

This was a message which IEAA chief executive, Phil Honeywood, shared with UK university colleagues in a session at the recent UKCISA conference.

He cited a report which found that 82% of the 1,313 Australia and 981 New Zealand citizens reported in a change in attitude to the sense of separation and isolation internationals face, while 81% said their appreciation of students’ challenges of living away from home had changed.

But from an external perspective, Australia’s patchwork approach to student support and difficulties in clarity on borders reopening has been difficult in terms of national message, Honeywood conceded.

“We have a very fractured situation of some state governments, some education institutions, some local government, city government councils, all providing a hodgepodge, if you like, of different support to our international students who have been stranded here in Australia,” he said.

He noted that in one state, there was an accommodation guarantee. In another state, food vouchers were offered. “Unfortunately, in terms of the national reputation of a coherent way forward, it hasn’t been as good as we would have hoped.”

Honeywood added that with tens of thousands of students still awaiting a reopening of borders, patience is running out for many international students too and pastoral care has been difficult.

“The stickability or the patience, if you like, with working and studying online, offshore, is beginning to really come apart.”

At the time of speaking, the sector was hoping for a NSW return plan to be unveiled but another lockdown is now impacting parts of the country.

A distinction between the Group of Eight universities (prestige institutions like the UK’s Russell Group) and others has also become clear, Honeywood added.

“We’ve discovered that the equivalent of your Russell Group, our Go8 universities in Australia, have been able to do very well in retaining and attracting students who are comfortable studying offshore, online, maybe with the hope to come to Australia eventually to finish their studies, ” Honeywood explained.

“Go8 universities have been able to do very well in retaining and attracting students comfortable studying offshore”

“Whereas unfortunately, too many other universities are not in the top 100 or 200 ranked in the world. They haven’t been able to retain international students, anything like the way that the Go8 universities have done.”

And there was a tricky issue of visa reform too. “We also have had student visa reform, which has been very important,” said Honeywood, explaining there is now a special Covid visa, whereby students can jump from a student visa and work full-time.

“There’s no cost involved with that visa but one of the conundrums is that if they do jump into that special Covid category visa, it means technically they can’t come back into a student visa, so there are quite a few visa issues that we have yet to really clarify in the minds of many students.”

Australian universities could be set to lose up to AUS$2bn because of Covid, according to Universities Australia, and one university La Trobe expects an AUS$165m shortfall, according to national press.

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