A leading education CEO told me last week, “We are trying to work with the government. But the major negative is the messaging from Morrison, rolling out the unwelcome mat and highlighting a lack of support for students.
“If we can get things right though we are in the box seat, Australia has huge potential advantages from this crisis.”
International education is a stunning Australian success story, by far our most valuable services export, and a bright spot in Australia’s post-GFC growth. Onshore students contributed $37.6 billion to our economy and supported over 247,000 Australian jobs in 2018/19.
International students or their visiting friends and relatives comprise 60% of Australia’s tourism numbers. Our cities, regions and campuses are more vibrant, diverse places to live, work and study because so many young people choose to spend a few valuable years here.
Offshore education services add even more value, and the sector’s soft-power dividend across our region over decades is incalculable with over 2.5 million alumni across the world, including many who rise to the top of Asian societies.
The scene was set for continued growth in international education in 2020, but Covid-19 is now wreaking havoc. Enrolments have plummeted, many students are stuck offshore, providers are in crisis, jobs are being lost and the worst is yet to come.
International students or their visiting friends and relatives comprise 60% of Australia’s tourism numbers
Yet international education is the only Top 10 Australian export sector that has been not just ignored, but actively harmed by the government during this crisis. The Prime Minister’s tone-deaf comments telling international students to just “go home” have inflicted enormous gratuitous damage on Australia’s reputation.
One accommodation provider told me that the morning after those comments, 35 students turned up at the front desk with their papers to cancel their leases as they literally believed they were required to leave.
It’s not too late though to take low-cost actions to save jobs and position for recovery, but the stakes are high.
Universities have become dangerously dependent on international education. Mitchell Institute modelling forecasts a loss of up to $19 billion revenue over the next three years: “each six-monthly intake missed due to the closed international border will deliver an economic blow equivalent to when Australia lost its entire car manufacturing industry.”
Covid-19 has exposed Australia’s broken higher education funding model. We now face the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and massive cuts to university teaching, capital works and research. If the government fails to boost public research funding during the recovery, our universities risk falling in the global rankings so critical to Australia’s future success.
Quality, reputable private higher education and training providers are suffering, while a few ‘bottom feeders’ prosper as anxious students chase cheaper courses.
It’s not too late though to take low-cost actions to save jobs and position for recovery
Perversely, some onshore agents are profiteering from the crisis, jacking up commissions and luring students to dodgy providers, so desperate for cashflow they will pay 40-50% commissions. An immediate crackdown is needed on unethical onshore agent behaviour.
International students still in Australia are anxious and isolated, many facing destitution having lost casual work and income. If the government is serious about saving Australian jobs, then it must provide direct financial support to genuinely needy students.
Part-time enrolments should be allowed in Semester 2, freeing up tuition fees for living costs. Visa extensions, and a guarantee that students who return home can study online or return next year without penalty, should be given.
Australia’s hard won, global reputation for quality education and a safe, caring student experience is under threat as students feel abandoned, unwelcome and hear appalling reports of racist abuse. Austrade needs resourcing now for digital marketing, reassuring the world that Australia remains open for business and students are welcome.
Student accommodation providers may face insolvency heading into 2021, but could be cheaply supported until students return. Governments could rent spare capacity for emergency housing for people suffering homelessness, family violence or needing respite.
Looking ahead, providers and prospective students need certainty. Student visa processing must be restarted, giving genuine new students confidence to enrol and start online, knowing they’ll be allowed to come when it’s safe.
If Canada can admit students, subject to strict quarantine and health checks, then we can too. The government should announce a date now when students can return later this year along with arrangements to protect our community.
The government should announce a date now when students can return later this year
If we fail to act then we will lose out to global competitors. But with political will the government could save the sector, and even enhance our position by 2021/22 if we’re clever. Leveraging a lower Australian dollar, and highlighting how well Australia has managed Covid-19 as compared to the disastrous situation in the US and UK.
Billions of dollars have been found to support aviation, tourism, and agriculture. Far less costly support for international education – an industry of the future – could save thousands of Australian jobs, and position this vibrant sector for a strong, sustainable recovery to our nation’s ongoing benefit.
Julian Hill is the Federal MP for Bruce and Co-Chair of the Parliamentary Friends of International Education in Australia. Julian was previously Executive Director, International Education in the Victorian Government.
Read his full suggested action plan here.