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20th Apr 2022

Australia’s foreign enrolment recovering slowly in 2022

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Damage to the Australia’s international enrolment pipeline is evident in the first part of 2022
  • Chinese students are not returning as quickly as many would like
  • Diversification and offshore education are key strategies going forward

The Australian international education sector is struggling to recover after two years of border closures despite its quality institutions and pent-up demand in many of its key markets. Astute strategies and offshore initiatives will bear fruit over time, but for now, onshore commencements and enrolments are taking longer to pick up, due especially to a decline from the highly important Chinese market.

A pipeline that endured sustained pressure

The loss of so many student commencements across all sectors in 2020 and 2021 are, as expected, disrupting the pipeline that leads international students through various pathways into Australian higher education. In particular, commencements in the ELICOS (English-language) sector, which is a first landing pad for many international students who come to Australia to pursue degrees, were down by 58% in December 2021 compared with the same timeframe in 2020 – enrolments were off by 61%. Nearly 50,000 international students arrived in February 2022 compared with more than 150,000 who came to Australia before the pandemic in February 2019.

Chinese students slower to return

Chinese students are not coming back in robust numbers as yet. Last month, English Australia CEO Brett Blacker warned that ELICOS providers and universities are not seeing a “vast increase (from Chinese students) coming into the first few months of 2022.” Chinese commencements in Australian education fell by 48% in 2021. Chinese students compose by far the largest proportion of foreign students in Australia, and many Australian educators (especially those outside the top 8 major universities) are thus severely affected by commencement and enrolment declines from China. Reduced commencements from China will continue to affect the enrolment pipeline for years – and the only way some institutions will cope will be to quickly diversify their international enrolment base (e.g., to enrol more students from Asian countries such as India (currently the #2 market), Nepal (#3), Vietnam (#4), and Malaysia (#5) as well as the emerging markets of Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Commencements from India and Nepal were up by 15% and 5%, respectively, compared with February 2019, according to a report from S&P Global Ratings, and there was also growth from Vietnam, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia. However, migration expert Abul Rizvi posted on Twitter that “offshore student visa applications in Feb [2022] fell to 8,996 after a strong Jan performance of 25,417. The fall was across all major source countries, particularly China & Nepal.”

Two years of border closures could only be damaging

Part of the challenge for Australia’s educators is that many international students lost faith in 2020 and 2021 in being able to get to Australia for programmes, despite the hard work many institutions, state governments, and associations put into developing pilot schemes to bring them back when borders were closed. Tens of thousands of international students were stranded offshore, many of them studying online while they waited for borders to open. Recently, a survey among over 1,000 international students enrolled at Australian universities by online study support service Studiosity found that only half (58%) planned plan to return to campus in 2022. Of those who said they would not return, 41% said they would study elsewhere.

Andrew Barclay, CEO of IDP, is not surprised by the slow return, saying, “Institutions in Australia were fully aware that the policy settings that have been in place for the past two years meant it would be difficult to turn the tap back on. The students are tired of waiting for the return.”

Peter Hurley, a policy fellow at the Mitchell Institute of Education and Health Policy at Victoria University, is of the same mind as Mr Barclay, telling Al Jazeera that, “The recovery] probably won’t be until 2026 or 2027 – five years from now – until Australian universities have the same number of international students as they did in 2019.”

New models and partnerships look promising

None of this is great news for Australia’s education sector, which relies heavily on international enrolments for revenues. However, educators are not sitting idly waiting for recovery to pick up speed. There is a great deal of activity afoot in establishing branch campuses and “student hubs” in Asia and in forging partnerships with other countries and institutions. Industry events have focused on developing a whole new mindset around international education based not on a wishful return to a 2019 heyday but to a more globally focused, labour market-informed approach that understands that mobility flows may simply not return to what they used to be.

The new ideas and initiatives and are particularly interesting in light of the fact that the other leading destinations are seeing growth slow from some key Asian markets. For example, the US and Canada are experiencing declines from China, South Korea, and Vietnam, while the UK is hosting significantly fewer Malaysian students.

Australia’s work in establishing new models for mobility with Asian countries could be very important as we go further into the decade, and they will doubtlessly help to shape a new era in Australian international education.

For additional background, please see:

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