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Australia at a crossroads: will international students hold out for borders to open?

A year into the pandemic, Australia is at a crossroads.

Barely 200 international students arrived in Australia in February, down from 121,120 in the same month of last year, a fall of 99.8%. Photo: Unsplash

"Some universities are shifting from a ‘fly-in, fly-out’ recruitment approach to more permanent, in-country representation across source market recruitment hubs"

Australia is one of a handful of countries around the world that has kept the virus at bay, and its citizens have been able to live relatively normal lives during this difficult period. Closed borders and strict quarantine have been incredibly effective, but have also isolated the country from international education markets.

The economic downturn in Australia is expected to be milder – and the recovery faster – than in other popular international student destinations such as the US and the UK. The pandemic has also helped showcase unique Australian values and social culture.

International students and their families can compare strong, human-centred and disciplined decision-making with the approach and challenges faced in other competitor host countries.

However, Australia’s success at containing the virus has come at a price. The country’s borders have been effectively closed to international students for well over a year, and there is still no indication of when they will reopen.

This February, according to data from the Australia Bureau of Statistics, barely 200 international students arrived in Australia, down from 121,120 in the same month of last year, a fall of 99.8%.

The pressing question is, how long will international students wait for borders to open?

Australian universities are understandably anxious about the closed borders, and have expressed their concerns to governments for over a year. Australian student visa application processing restarted in the second half of 2020, indicating some recovery of student demand.

“Some ‘Group of Eight’ universities now have more Chinese student enrolments than pre-pandemic”

However, application numbers are lower than in previous years. As of December 2020, commencements from China, Australia’s largest student source country, dropped by 26%, contributing to an overall decline of 22%.

The pandemic’s financial blow to the higher education sector and related businesses is breathtaking, with a peak governmental body estimating a total loss of up to AUS$9 billion. Preliminary data on education services exports arising from international students studying in Australia in 2020 was $31.5bn, a decline of 22% on 2019 levels.

Recent research indicates that students whose first choice is to study in Australia may switch destinations if they can resume face-to-face learning sooner in an alternative host country. We are already seeing an uptick in students choosing the UK, primarily given their ability to fly there. This will have an ongoing impact on Australia, as word-of-mouth influence among international students is powerful.

Australian universities have undertaken active outreach programs to engage and retain the interest of international students. They certainly haven’t been complacent, making literally tens of thousands of individual phone calls to help build bespoke remote learning study plans for students.

Some of those universities are now seeing growth in their new student enrolments, with commencements entirely online – in fact, some ‘Group of Eight’ universities now have more Chinese student enrolments than pre-pandemic.

This is a clear demonstration that there is ongoing demand for international study, as well as acceptance of online study as an alternative. Australian universities have made significant investments in online and remote learning tools and upskilling, and they are also responding to the international student desire to be embraced, to be part of a community through university facilitated activity or study hub environments in their home countries.

The government is working to adapt to these changes in the operating landscape by developing Connected, Creative, Caring: Australian Strategy 2021-2030. This refreshed approach to international education is intended to steer the sector through the challenges of geopolitics, increased competitiveness and economic unpredictability.

While Australian universities are unlikely to reduce their dependence on international student revenue, they are already implementing institutional changes. Some are shifting from a ‘fly-in, fly-out’ recruitment approach to more permanent, in-country representation across source market recruitment hubs.

Transnational education, such as joint programs, twinning, offshore partnerships and even mergers and acquisitions, can offer solutions especially while borders remain shut.

International students who are weighing their choices can be confident that Australia’s borders will eventually open. There are positive signs that even from July 2021, fixed numbers of international students may be able to return to recommence their studies in Australia.

“There are viable, credible, high-quality ways to commence an Australian education immediately”

Importantly though, there is no reason for students to wait to commence their studies. There are viable, credible, high-quality ways to commence an Australian education immediately, including in one of the many offshore and joint partnership campuses.

As education providers, we need to ensure that our Australian values of care, quality and open communication pervade our engagement and delivery. A focus on health and well-being will continue to serve as a beacon long after the pandemic ends.

About the author:

Marnie Watson is Managing Director, Australia and New Zealand, at Sannam S4, the preferred global partner for strategic and sustainable expansion in international higher education. Based in Sydney, Marnie is responsible for Sannam S4’s expansion in these two markets and for building a robust strategy across this broad geographic region. With 25 years’ experience in the international education sector, having worked in Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia, Marnie has a proven track record of delivering strong outcomes in education management environments.

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27 Responses to Australia at a crossroads: will international students hold out for borders to open?

  1. A completely biased article. You have no idea how it feels to be thrown out of the country. You have no idea how it feel to wake up everyday and check if the borders are opening. It was a mistake choosing your country. International student pay 94000 dollar and you expect us to study online. The govt has left out international students at the time of need which tells us that we were just a money minting technique. Australia has just given false hope of border opening and never even promised on a single thing till now

  2. I would like to say that if they(the government) talks about Australian values, ethics, culture or anything then they might have come up with an alternative till now to get back international students back to the campuses. The other countries are also facing the same pandemic however they never restricted international students to travel back to their respective countries (like US, UK, GERMANY, CANADA). These countries are also developed and they are trying to maintain theri goodwill by proposing several alternatives so that the international students are not left stranded in their home country. It’s really disheartening for the youth to go through such phases in their life and instead of supporting them they are being asked to wait wait and wait. Personally, I’ve waiting here in my home country for more than 1.5 years. I’ve completed my 3 out of my 4 semesters here in my home country and still I got a mail from the University that please be patient take care of your family and we will surely come up with some solution. But when? No one knows the answer. Impressions like these would surely affect the goodwill of a country and would change the positive mindset of a lot of young students. I hope they would come up with an alternative to call back the International Students and the graduates who have completed their degree so that we can proudly say that yes our decision was not wrong to choose Australia as our destination country for higher studies. With this I hope things goes well for every international student. Stay safe everyone 🙏

  3. Dear Sanju

    Completely agree. The University should give all your money back so as you can leave Australia and study in another country. I suggest….USA. Harder to enter but they are realizing quickly that the International student is an excellent person to fix their labour issues in the long and short term making it easier for you to find a job there.
    Australia welcomes you but sorry this Government does not.
    Do a stopover in Hawaii on your way to the USA, Great place.
    Jenny.

    • Hi Sanju. I’m sorry for what you’ve been going thru. But in US you are NOT allowed to work we do in Aus mate. How would you survive then. You will get deported if caught working while studying except for your college.
      How about many people that studied and got pathway to PR as I have so many clients from your end my friend.
      All the best

  4. I am Shan from Pakistan and before I work with US army in afghanistan now I want cleaning job so anyone help me please….when I came from Afghanistan still I don’t find Job in My country please help me for job I have cleaning work experience 4 years and certificates

  5. Australia, please let us know when you will open the borders… Please make a clear statement on borders opening it means a lot to all of us.

  6. Yes, the article is very biased. It is not clear how pandemic showcased Australian values. Which values? How could a country that doesn’t help his stranded citizens abroad return be considered a welcoming destinations for foreigners? International students are very knowledgeable about the Australian news, and don’t try to misguide them by your biased article. I recommend everyone considering Australia as their study destination change their choice. These people don’t want your talent and youthful energy to boost their economy. They want your money that is probably earned by the hard work of your parents. Please invest your money, youth and talent somewhere else that value them.

  7. I am a mother of two students studying in australia , fully agree with the comments above and feel sad for you guys as my children are also stranded in home country
    My nephew is a chemistry student left stranded he should have been graduated in 2019 but short of a lab subject which can’t be done online he just can’t graduate

    The sad thing is the PM actually asked us to go back home when the pandemic started and not knowing that there is no date for return

  8. The Australian government has not said when international students could return because they don’t know when COVID will get under control. India is the latest ‘surprise’.
    We can only imagine your stress at having your dreams turned upside down, but please understand that we are not going to put your dreams before people’s lives.
    2022 is the date that we are working with now. Getting students in before then will be pretty difficult.

  9. Australia is very fake country they were just playing with the life’s of international students , I just wanna know that , if u r saying that when we started flights travellers have to be tested for vivid they have to take precautions , they have to stay in quarantine, then why u guys are not calling us ? We all are ready to follow all ur steps or precautions whatever it is , but when that tym will come ? When u r gonna call us ? Seriously now this is toooo much of waiting 🤬

  10. Plz let me know when borders are open to int’l students.. I paid the fees for face to face MBA program for 2 yrs.. but now it’s online which has no clarity on what they teach.. I have my 2 sems left.. can I study the last 2 sems in Australia.. the fees have not reduced.. plzzz open the borders..

  11. Yes The gov is working on 2022 I just worry come that day the gov will b silent on that again n again we have to wait
    The problem is the students are already half way through it is not easy to transfer to another country
    I don’t understand why the gov could bring in sports persons for a round of sports but reluctant to bring in international students which is one of the biggest source of your national income
    And we are willing to be quarantined at our own cost

  12. According to me Australia is one the most self Centeed country in the world,,,thinking of their own safety…rather thn thinking about thousands of students carrier depending on their stupid policies of self isolated thoughts,,they should reopen borders with vaccinated students and quarantine facilities so pupils get their degrees with 2 years of international job experience related to their degrees n go back to their home country’s to start their practical lives …they r wasting our time n money with this ship online system with no benefits or discounts.

  13. The government could bring in sports people because they were in and out in a month or two, all living in a few hotels, all aware they could lose their living if they did anything wrong and all paid for by 1 organisation.

    The complexity of international students in locations all over the country is too much. (We can’t even control the citizens we are taking in, especially with the new infectious ness.) The countries that have accepted international students have all had problems and their people and economies are hurting.

    We really feel for the students who are half-way through a degree, but they can complete the degree online in the vast majority of cases. This is very hard and not what they paid for, so they should get a refund if they quit. I think the problem is universities will only refund the subjects they have not finished, not the whole degree. The whole refund should be possible.

    …and, you are right. If something like India is happening in November, 2022 will not happen. We are just guessing based on what should happen. Predictions are why no one can give you an exact date.

  14. Wow was about applying for a school in Australia, but seeing all these comments??? I dont think i will consider schooling in Australia smh..

  15. If the Australian government does not want to open its borders, they should not open an Australian embassy to issue new student visas. If the embassy does not open, why would students apply for an Australian visa? “The government wants to make more money from the education sector but doesn’t like to do anything for students. The Australian government knows that education is a key part of the Australian economy, so they opened an embassy for new visas. (Fooling students)

  16. When will we be able to enter the Australia to study..I am going to apply for master degree ..will Australia open borders for international students within this year ..Please be kind enough to tell me it..??

  17. All these comments above made me a lot more anxious. I got an offer letter from a uni in Sydney, but this entire situation is making me reconsider this. I understand why the Australian gov is being so concerned and all, but the universities aren’t being transparent at all. They even stated that I could come and finish my program in Australia whenever the travel restrictions are lifted, but to be honest there’s no certainty. Should I defer my offer or change the destination of my overseas education? That is the real question now….

  18. For studies, select Germany or Canada. You can work and there is a pathway for citizenship too. Most of the Aussies are self centered and they don’t care about migration. Invest your future in Canada if you want to migrate. Australia as an International Student destination or migration is done and dusted. Economic ramifications of their bungled up covid strategy could be felt by 2025, not before that.

  19. Please open the Border for international students because some students parents are giving all their things for the higher study and Also they are taking loan in higher interest.. we are ready to do all things like covid check quarantine days all the safety please open the border .. we trusted you for our career and please trust us for borders

  20. They will not do anything because they are mean. Every student think for studying in abroad so that they can learn culture and adopt environment of that country but they are not allowing us to arrive their only for myth we would spread covid there. If they will continue to show same attitude no one will try fir australia never…..

  21. Australian government is not given a straight answer on when their border will open for international student they are just being selfish our money should be refund ooooo I don tired to dey wait

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