The return of international students to Australia: some thoughts as at 28 September 2020
There have been concerns raised by some leaders in the university sector that international students will be unable to study on campus in Australia until mid-2021 at the earliest and that in the meantime students might instead choose to study in the UK and Canada.
While I understand the frustration of leaders in the sector I still expect students to return to Australia before mid-2021 and I do not think there will be a significant shift away from Australia to competitor countries for the reasons outlined below.
I think it is important firstly to keep in mind that re-opening international education was recognised early on by the Commonwealth, State and Territory leaders (meeting as National Cabinet) as a key milestone in Australia emerging from the COVID lockdown. It is only the Victorian government’s hotel quarantine mismanagement which has prevented this occurring.
New case numbers are now low in Victoria and both NSW and Queensland appear to have control of the cases which emerged from the Victorian outbreak. With the exception of Victoria life is returning to normal (albeit with some COVID-safe amendments) – and thankfully our internal borders are starting to reopen.
NSW Minister, Stuart Ayers, speaking at the recent ATN Universities International Education Forum confirmed the above and indicated that he thinks students may even return sooner than 2021.
At the same time the UK appears to be (yet again) struggling to control the virus and appears to be on the verge of another lockdown – with public debate as to whether or not domestic students will be able to return home over Christmas or if they will be required to stay in their university accommodation to limit the spread of the disease. There has been news out of the US very recently that they are introducing regulations to further restrict both which international students can get visas to study in the US and how long students can stay.
That leaves Canada and New Zealand. In the middle of a general election, New Zealand shows no signs of an early opening up to international students (albeit the Deputy Prime Minister is openly discussing making quick progress on a joint Australia-NZ travel bubble). The Canadians appear to be having troubles with changes to their student visas which they introduced back in March.
Collectively I think that means:
- our competitors may not streak ahead of us in recruiting students in the next few months (although a longer-term issue for Australia with the UK government’s recent announcement of two years post-study work rights for all international students)
- parents in source countries are going to be highly motivated to send their children to COVID-safe countries (while I think this will be a general trend across all source countries, I also think it will be more pronounced in countries with high caseloads of COVID. I do not expect our governments will be rushing to bring students in from high-risk countries in the first wave of re-opening our international borders. However I do think there will be very strong demand from these countries – that is India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Philippines and Indonesia in particular)
- the Commonwealth and State/Territory governments are highly motivated to reboot the Australian economy – not least the university sector given the significant job losses it is experiencing. As a result we are seeing the international education sector – including the universities – now being much more clearly focussed on getting the message out on the job creation role international education plays (and the government has joined in, with Minister Tehan now saying “1 job is created for every 3 international students who come to Australia”)
- South Australia has reopened its borders to NSW and the ACT – in my view this is in part in preparation for allowing a pilot return of students (the Commonwealth government wants internal borders to be open before allowing international students into the country) and Queensland has also re-opened its borders to the ACT and is drawing ever larger parts of NSW into its ‘border bubble’.
So against that backdrop, it is somewhat ironic that the most significant barrier to the return of international students (except for in Victoria) is the Commonwealth government and their inability to get Australians who are stranded overseas back into the country. It is not going to be politically palatable to allow international students into Australia where Australians are unable to return. Let’s hope this issue is dealt with promptly and then charter flights of students can be organised.
And then the challenge is to properly and carefully manage the quarantine of these students and help them subsequently settle into life in Australia.