Education | Australia

25 March 2021

International students are leaving Australian universities in droves, and yet the federal government is simply looking the other way, Tahmina Rashid writes.

On 20 March 2020, Australia closed its international borders for all international arrivals, except for Australian citizens and New Zealand citizens residing in Australia, and citizens of Pacific Island countries transiting to home countries.

This border closure impacted international students too, and so Australian universities lost a major source of revenue. As a result, Universities Australia estimates that 17,300 jobs will be lost across Australian universities during the pandemic.

This is compounded by the fact that Australian universities have had very little support from the federal government. Unlike charities and businesses, which had to show a drop in revenue over a one-month or one-quarter period to receive assistance, universities were required to show a drop over a six-month period.

On top of this, public universities were entirely excluded from accessing JobKeeper payments, and only four private universities were exempted from the six-month rule.

Raw data on international students in 2020 indicates a total loss of 882,482 enrolments across the sector, with higher education making up 418,168 of these.

Compared to 2019, the number of international students in 2020 from China, Nepal, Vietnam, and Brazil dropped drastically, though interestingly this was not universal – the number from India, for instance, increased. Numbers also increased in vocational education, despite falls across the rest of the education sector.

More on this: Australian higher education: where to now?

As 30 per cent of Australia’s 542,106 student visa holders are still stranded outside Australia, especially in China, India, and Vietnam, their absence has been felt in other sectors such as the housing market – thousands of apartment buildings remained empty for much of 2020. This meant that apartments previously accommodating thousands of students were no longer a viable investment, pushing owners to sell at a price lower than previous years.

Even into 2021, buildings remain empty in suburban areas in Sydney and Melbourne, and suburbs around universities have been hit especially hard. Australia’s largest student accommodation provider, Scape, with 14,000 bedrooms around Australia and another 10,000 close to completion has estimated 80 to 90 per cent drop in occupancy in 2021.

While Indian students currently enrolled have been resilient to dropping away during the crisis, offshore visa applications from India to study in Australia have declined by 48 per cent, as Indian students are less likely to study online. They are now looking to other destinations whose border rules have been more favourable to international students, like Canada.

This problem won’t go away until borders open. Noting the strong association between migration policy and the international education sector, a Mitchell Institute report estimated that the number of international students will continue to reduce significantly if the international borders remain closed.

More on this: Does Australia offer international students a product it can’t deliver?

This raises a crucial question: where is the federal government in all this?

International students have petitioned the government to exempt them from international border restrictions, and international student lobby groups have been voicing the concerns of frustrated students who have spent significant money on visas and tuition fees and are still not allowed to enter the country.

Students aren’t alone in this either – the CEO of the industry group International Education Association of Australia criticised prioritising tennis and cricket players over international students. Many international students believe that Australians have very little understanding of the contributions made by international students and often see them as numbers, ignoring that not only how useful the fees they pay are to Australian universities but also how their living expenses, skills development, and relationships built across the globe benefit both Australia and their home countries.

Some state governments are considering pilot projects to bring back international students in 2021, and these should go ahead. While similar attempts by South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory in 2020 were shelved, 63 international students from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia were allowed to travel to Darwin to study in Charles Darwin University, boosting the local economy.

Still, the federal government gets in the way. The New South Wales Government, which has been exploring options to bring back international students via Hobart, is looking to save $14 billion international education sector. But the state has been frustrated by the federal government, which is enforcing caps on international arrivals as it is maintaining that New South Wales’ quarantine quota is influenced by returnees from other states.

The education minister has affirmed that returning Australians remain a priority over international students and says that he has not seen any proposed alternative solutions to the issue from the state government.

The announcement this week by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Australian border will remain closed for international students has also been criticised, especially amid fears that Australia will lose international students to other countries.

While British universities have brought Chinese students on chartered flights and Canada has re-opened its borders for international students, Australian universities have been largely left behind by federal government policies. It must step in and do something, or watch one of its most important sectors continue to suffer.

With The New Normal: In Focus section, Policy Forum is rebooting our coronavirus pandemic coverage to address the changing situation. We hope you find the discussion valuable, and invite you to join in the conversation.

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7 Responses

  1. Frances says:

    This is an absolute must do. It is completely illogical for the Australian Government to wait even one more week to start planning a Covid-Safe opening of borders to our very important/even precious international students or watch them all spread across the globe away from us. Let’s pick it up !!!!!!

    • Paula says:

      It is absolutely More important, to get All our Australians who are still overseas and been waiting to return s since the borders closed, back here First. No one else is more important. We Will adjust and we Will find other ways to keep
      Our economy move forward.

      • Srikanth says:

        Yes, you are correct. But the Government has to give the clarity on borders opens. People who are outside will not invest to study in Australia. They are also humans and they have family. Students are loosing the money,career and time as well.

  2. Xyz says:

    Australian government mush take heavy decision regarding the international students. Many students have invested huge amount of money and time so that they could get better education in abroad, but the government of Australia does not care which is bad thing. Just reopen your border for international students and for tourists. You can put students in quarantine and let them complete their study, don’t disrespect our reading rights.


    Could you open the border to abroad students, if it goes ahead online format, it will be so bad for gettting education

  4. Srikanth says:

    I suggested my friends to go other countries instead of Australia. They planned to Canada and USA. Some of them got the visa and ready to travel. If Australia close the borders till 2022, it will loose for Education sector and Government too. In future also it will be affected.

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