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Australia: Building a roadmap for the return of international students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • An industry roundtable has provided the Australian government with an 18-month roadmap for recovery for the country’s international education industry
  • The roadmap prioritises the admission of continuing students from low-risk countries, proposes a package of visa measures, and recommends a collaborative marketing campaign

Australia’s borders have been effectively closed to international students for 18 months now, and the government has signalled that significant travel restrictions will remain in place into mid-2022.

However, the country’s international education industry continues to work toward meaningful plans for recovery. Peak bodies are meeting regularly in industry roundtables, and other experts and travel industry partners have been drawn in to the discussions in order that quick action can be taken when the current border restrictions ease.

Those discussions have resulted in a set of guiding principles for recovery that prioritise safety and the admission of students from low-risk countries. They have also produced a set of more specific proposals around visa processing, visa fee waivers, and an enhanced post-study work offer for foreign graduates. And the industry is also contingency planning with major travel operators and housing providers, around charter and quarantine arrangements for incoming students.

State governments have been working on their own safe arrival plans and, excepting a limited pilot in Australia’s Northern Territory, the first of those was approved for South Australia in June 2021. That pilot, which is continuing at this writing, aims to bring 160 foreign students per fortnight into a dedicated quarantine facility in Adelaide.

Education Minister Alan Tudge announced on 29 July that a second state-level plan, this time for New South Wales, had also been approved. It would have again brought 250 students per fortnight into a dedicated quarantine site. But that effort, and the broader process of recovery planning as well, has been hampered by a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Australia. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced in July that the student pilot would be put on hold due to rising case counts. And both Sydney and Melbourne are currently under strict lockdown orders, with health authorities now expanding the measures to other cities in Victoria and New South Wales in a bid to slow infection rates.

A complicating factor is that the vaccine rollout in Australia has been relatively slow. As of 11 August 2021, just under 19% of eligible Australians are fully vaccinated, which puts Australia 35th among 38 OECD countries. At the current pace of the rollout, estimates project that most Australian states will reach the 80%-vaccinated threshold in late November or early December 2021.

The 18-month roadmap

The International Education Industry Roundtable, a group of peak bodies and industry stakeholders, presented Minister Tudge with two important plans in late July. The first was a ten-year strategy to guide the sector’s long-term development. The second had a more immediate focus in plotting an 18-month roadmap for the recovery of international education in Australia.

Those submissions to government are underpinned by a growing sense of urgency within the industry. A recent item from the Australian Financial Review (AFR) notes, “Australia is alone among competitor nations in not having a clearly articulated national plan, or strong public support [for international education] from the national leader.”

The industry roadmap aims to remedy that through a series of proposals, including:

  • That priority initially be given to those arriving from low-risk countries as well as to continuing students in higher education, in part “to test alternative quarantine arrangements and vaccine policies” for arriving students, with the idea of subsequently expanding to include commencing students in VET, ELICOS, and schools
  • That visa fees be waived and visa renewal processes streamlined in order to allow students to resume their studies in Australia as easily as possible
  • That visa fees be waived for new students
  • That a coordinated national marketing campaign be undertaken to reinforce Australia’s education brand.

The urgency of these proposals comes from the continuing pressure on Australia’s international enrolment over this year. In November 2020, a report from a Victoria University think tank projected that Australia could lose up to half of its foreign enrolment by mid-2021 if the country’s borders remained closed to international students. This translates into a projected economic loss of up to AUS$20 billion per year, roughly half of the industry’s pre-pandemic value.

There were more than 758,000 visa-holding international students studying in Australia in 2019. But the latest available data from Australia’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment shows that:

  • The total number of visa holders has declined by nearly a third (-31.9%) between March 2020 and June 2021, for a current total of 472,615;
  • One third of those – just under 160,000 students – are currently outside of Australia.

Students are deciding

At the same time, there is abundant research this year clearly establishing student decision making for study abroad is now informed by an additional set of factors, including border rules, vaccination rates, and the availability of in-person learning. Australia does not currently compare well on those points, and there is growing concern across the industry that the extended border closures are encouraging students to look elsewhere.

To take one example, IDP Connect’s periodic Crossroads survey has consistently shown that students are prepared to shift destinations this year and are especially attracted to clarity in terms of travel and public health rules. Reflecting on the latest survey cycle, CEO Simon Emmett said, “We are continuing to see students’ resilience and determination to arrive safely and commence their studies on campus through their overwhelming willingness to comply with vaccination and quarantine policies…The UK and Canada have both recently clarified their policies regarding vaccines, confirming that they will be available to students on arrival and these latest findings show that this is welcomed by students, and factored into their decisions on preferred destinations.”

Commenting to AFR on the Crossroads research, Phil Honeywood, executive director of the International Education Association of Australia, said, “The latest lockdown shows that unlike our competitor countries, our international education sector remains bereft of a social licence to operate. Clearly the latest [survey research] underlines that international students caught offshore are losing patience and have little hope of returning here for face-to-face study.”

“I would certainly like to see [some of the initiatives in the recovery roadmap] up and running later this year,” he added.

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