Australian universities have increasingly become a popular destination for international students.
There are many factors which have influenced this, such as the quality of universities, the diversity of education, the cultural diversity of the country, and the work opportunities.
The high quality of life and the incredible nature the country offers has also contributed to making the country an attractive study destination.
In 2019, approximately 30 per cent of students enrolled in Australian universities were international students and they provided over a quarter of all university funding.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has put immense pressure on universities and has created uncertainties about the ongoing relationship between international students and Australia.
The importance of international students
Currently, education is the fourth biggest export in Australia behind coal, iron ore and natural gas. The international education sector contributed $37.6 billion to the economy in 2018-19.
According to a recent Deloitte Access Economics modelling, 127,300 international students support local jobs in Australia. These are jobs across various industries such as retail, hospitality, tourism and higher education.
The contribution of international students is not limited to the financial benefits they provide to universities and the Australian economy. They play an important role in allowing universities to deliver a diverse and world-class educational experience.
Around 80 per cent of international students go back to their home countries and many of them take up leadership roles in national corporations and government. The interactions between international and domestic students form invaluable relationships.
Treatment of international students during COVID-19
When COVID-19 hit, the flow of students globally suffered. This was mainly because of the border restrictions many countries put up in response to the pandemic. This was especially the case in Australia as the beginning of the pandemic coincided with the start of the academic year.
For the international students who found themselves within Australia’s borders, an uncomfortable reality settled in. The COVID-19 triggered a lockdown which meant life was no longer the same. The universities had closed their doors and transitioned to fully online learning.
Many international students found themselves out of work. This was a difficult situation for those who relied on part-time or casual jobs to cover living expenses. International students in Australia were not eligible to access any of the federal government’s rescue packages such as the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments. The main federal assistance offered to them was access to their superannuation.
Despite this many universities and state governments stepped up to proactively support international students. This helped to alleviate some of the burdens faced by international students. However, there is still a strong need for financial and emotional support for international students in Australia both at a federal and state level.
The treatment of international students in Australia has generated mixed feelings, especially after the controversial statement made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Ahmed Ademoglu, the National President of the Council of International Students Australia has said that the Prime Minister’s comments have left a lot of students with no hope. Many of these students are unable to return to their countries due to border restrictions or financial difficulties.
The CISA in their statements have expressed their dissatisfaction with the response from the federal government. They have said that international students are taxpayers and individuals who contribute to the Australian economy and therefore should be treated fairly.
Opportunity for improvement
Experts have said that lack of support shown to international students by the Australian federal government during COVID-19 will inevitably affect its reputation as a top study destination.
Countries such as the UK and New Zealand have provided full access to support payments for international students who have lost their jobs. Other countries like Ireland and Canada have also offered government assistance to international students. Additionally, all these countries have arranged for flexible visa arrangements.
The reputation of Australia’s international education sector will suffer due to the country not doing enough to support international students, especially when competing countries are demonstrating far more generosity.
Even with the limited assistance available, CISA has urged the federal government to better coordinate and promote the support available. They emphasised the importance of the Australian government providing a clear statement and package of what the country has to offer international students.
There will be a time post COVID-19 when things return to normal and international students will decide whether they want to do their studies in Australia or elsewhere. How they are treated now could significantly impact that decision.
What does the future look like?
In March 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that there was a 16 per cent drop in the arrival of international students compared to the year before.
As the year continues universities will face a decrease in the enrolment of international students and this could very well extend for a few years. Many universities will be forced to downsize on their staff and budgets.
However, with the current measures taken by universities and state governments, it is highly likely that the long term situation could be rectified. It is extremely important to ensure that international students feel safe and supported.
This will require collaboration between universities, state governments and federal governments.