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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.

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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