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Australian government cautions on 2021 border opening as economic impact deepens

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Australian educators are bracing for weeks, if not months, of international borders remaining closed to international students
  • Thousands of university jobs have been lost so far, and revenue losses are climbing into the billions as a result of pandemic-related restrictions
  • The government will not say when international borders will open again but warns that a total reopening may not happen in 2021
  • Education Minister Alan Tudge says the government is open to ideas from state governments working with educators for how international students might safely be flown in and quarantined in the coming months

The new academic year in Australia begins in March, and this is normally an exciting, busy month as many thousands of international students flock to schools and campuses to begin their educational journey. But with mere weeks to go, Australian educators across sectors are losing hope that foreign students will be able to fly into the country to begin classes. The federal government will not say when it expects borders to open to these students and says that the answer depends on vaccine rollouts in Australia as well as in source countries.

In the meantime, Australian educators across all sectors are losing staff and billions of dollars. Some are rapidly developing online and branch campus capabilities to keep enrolling international students stranded abroad, but not all have the means to do so and not all international students are as interested in offshore or online learning as in travelling to Australia for an on-campus experience.

Associations banding together

English language schools are now reporting significant losses: there was a 42% decline in YTD commencements for language students as of November 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. November unfortunately also marked the largest decline of 2020 for ELICOS commencements.

In January, English Australia collaborated with the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA) and the Independent Higher Education Association Australia (IHEA) in advocacy efforts urging the government to recognise the value of the sector to the country as well as how vulnerable it has become because of the pandemic and closed borders.

One of the group’s communiques to government, explains English Australia CEO Brett Blacker, “requested the provision of an indicative date for the return of international students in 2021 and for National Cabinet to provide some positive messaging that, Australia is a safe, welcoming study destination country and determined to permit international students to return to study as soon as it is safe to do so.”

University losses mounting

The continued border closure is exacerbating the financial hardships already felt by universities and their staff throughout 2020. Universities Australia announced this week that university job losses amounted to 17,300 in 2020, and revenues fell by AUS$1.8 billion (US$1.4 billion) compared to 2019. Another AUS$2 billion loss is projected for 2021.

Teresa Tjia, an honorary fellow with the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, told Times Higher Education that job losses in 2020 were actually almost double the 17,300 number when “casually employed” university staff who have lost their employment are counted: in this category, the estimate is that job losses amounted to about 36,000.

As a comparison, this fallout is much worse than the reported pandemic-related damage to the university sector in the UK: THE reports that in that country, “3,000 staff were made redundant between 1 March and 20 September this year by the 104 universities that responded [to a survey by educational platform Edvoy].

The UK’s border restrictions have so far been much less extensive than those in Australia but the country’s COVID situation is also far worse than in Australia. As of this writing, fewer than 1,000 people have died from COVID in Australia, while in the UK, deaths have surpassed 108,000.

Bracing for a years-long recovery

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said that the damage to the Australian higher education sector won’t be limited to 2020 and 2021:

“Continuing border closures mean universities face the double whammy of fewer returning students in 2020, and reduced numbers in 2021. The cumulative impact won’t be felt just in 2020 and 2021, but for years to come.”

Last year, Universities Australia projected a financial loss of up to AUS$16 billion for the nation’s universities through 2023 (US$11.2 billion).

While Ms Jackson underlined the severity of the job and revenue losses, she also praised the government for significant support of universities’ R&D capabilities:

“Universities welcomed the injection of AUS$1 billion for research announced by the Government in October last year. It was an important acknowledgement that the jobs of the future are created by R&D, and that universities are central to national recovery.”

As impressive as Australia’s research excellence and investments may be, some experts now say that continued border closures may have a long-term, or even permanent, affect on Australia’s market share of international students – which before the pandemic, had been poised to possibly overtake the UK’s in the number two spot after the US.

Opening will depend on a number of factors

The federal government is providing no timeline for when international students will be allowed to enter Australia. In a recent ABC News Radio interview, Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge did not offer false hope to university stakeholders, saying that a significant recovery of the international education sector will only be possible once COVID vaccine is effectively distributed throughout the Australian population.

However, Mr Tudge suggested that once the vaccine is rolled out, the recovery would likely take hold quickly: “Should it be effective, that would make a big difference and universities could begin enrolling thousands of foreign students again.”

While Mr Tudge cautioned that a recovery is some ways off and stated that quarantine facilities are not currently capable of accommodating large numbers of international students, he also said there are potential ways that international students could come to Australia sooner than later.

Namely:

(1) He signalled that there is room for negotiation regarding when international students could come back: “We’re open to looking at all options, but we’re asking the education providers to work with the state governments, come up with their plans, get the tick-off by their state chief medical officers, and then present them to us.”

(2) He suggested that it’s possible that if students in source countries are safely vaccinated, they would not have to quarantine: “I would say, though, that what gives me a bit of hope is that if the vaccine is effective and even if it’s rolled out only partially in some of the major source countries, and if those students have been vaccinated, then there’s the potential for them to come into Australia without having to quarantine.”

During 2020, there were a number of pilots planned to fly international students back into Australia but most have so far been suspended or postponed under current public health and travel restrictions.

If some international students are eventually allowed in at some point in 2021, this will almost certainly need an exception to current rules which have prioritised returning Australian citizens within the field of potential international arrivals. Brendan Murphy, Australia’s health secretary, says it will likely not be until 2022 that that the country’s international borders will fully reopen.

Government steps up funding

In the ABC News Radio interview, Mr Tudge noted as well that the federal government has supported universities in increasing and enhancing their online education delivery models to attract and enrol international students in their home countries, and that as international student numbers have fallen, the government has poured billions of dollars into creating 30,000 new places for domestic students.

Monash University is Australia’s largest university, and it has quickly pivoted to reduce the fallout from the loss of international students on its campuses. A spokeswoman told The Guardian,

“We have introduced new initiatives to support our students, including the introduction of our inaugural online November intake for 2020 for undergraduate and postgraduate studies in particular subject areas to adapt to this new environment. As well, we are planning to use our international branch campus networks in Malaysia, Suzhou, and Prato to deliver parts of the face-to-face student experience for international students in those locations. We have built new online tools and platforms, including in online examinations, and changed the way many services beyond teaching are delivered.”

Not every university is as well-resourced or set up as Monash, however, and some smaller regional universities are in deeper trouble given their more limited capabilities. Even larger institutions are having issues with attracting enough new students to study online while borders are closed.

Innovative Research Universities (IRU), a group spanning seven universities, says that while currently enrolled students were willing to continue their studies online, “they are not being replaced by as many new commencing students.”

“Universities would normally see another 80,000 higher education students enter Australia in the middle of the year, but in 2020 the second semester came and went without new arrivals and fewer students commencing online.”

As the sector reels from the impact of closed borders, stakeholders are wondering how Australian higher education can move forward and adapt in a way that international students will still want to choose Australia over other destinations. The chair of Universities Australia, Professsor Deborah Terry, told The Guardian,

“International education is something that Australia punches well above its weight [in]. We are preparing our students – whether international or domestic – to be part of a global workforce. At the same time teaching and learning and the nature of work is changing. People are going to have to up-skill and re-skill much more than previous generations.

In the next few years we will need to think through what does an international education look like in the future. How does Australia continue to play its leading role in that area?”

International education contributed a total of AUS$37.6 billion to the economy in 2019 and is Australia’s largest service-based export.

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