News Analysis: Australia's tertiary education sector faces hurdles on road to winning back int'l students

2021-11-26 03:35:04 GMT2021-11-26 11:35:04(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

SYDNEY, Nov. 26 (Xinhua) -- Australia's tertiary education sector, which has been financially languishing for the past two years due to COVID-19, is finally about to welcome back international students with the reopening of the nation's borders from December.

Earlier this week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that fully vaccinated foreign students with the appropriate visas would no longer need to apply for travel exemptions.

This easing of regulations has pleased key players such as Universities Australia and the Group of Eight (Go8), who represent many of the nation's leading tertiary institutions.

"The Australian government's decision to allow fully vaccinated visa holders, including international students, to return from Dec. 1 signals the beginning of an exciting new phase for our international education," Go8 Chief Executive Vicki Thomson told Xinhua.

Universities and colleges have long relied on those international students as a major revenue stream, with their fees making up to 40 percent of some institutions' total earnings, according to the figures published by the University of Sydney last year.

Prior to the pandemic, Universities Australia estimated in 2018 that international students injected 31.9 billion Australian dollars (about 22.83 billion U.S. dollars) into the country's economy in the previous financial year, due to their high tuition fees and associated living costs.

According to data from Australia Department of Education, Skills and Employment in November, more than 150,000 primary student visa holders are outside Australia.

There are now concerns as to how they will be reabsorbed into the education system for the 2022 academic year.

The states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, which usually host most of the nation's international students, have created pilot programs based on a gradual acceptance of overseas students.

The NSW was initially only going to allow up to 250 students per fortnight to return from December while Victoria's limit was 120 per week. Now with the federal government's announcement, whether those capped numbers will be lifted remains to be seen.

The bureaucratic barriers are exacerbated by the different COVID-19 restrictions imposed by various states.

The NSW and Victoria, for instance, have scrapped quarantine requirements for vaccinated students. In Queensland, however, students will need to pay for two weeks in isolated quarantine.

The conditions are even more challenging in Western Australia where the state government has essentially locked down its borders until the state reaches its overall vaccination target of 90 percent of the eligible population.

And then there is the issue of COVID-19 vaccinations. The nation's regulatory body, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), has not at this stage recognized vaccines such as Russia's Sputnik V, which is widely used in India.

This means many Indian students, who form the second largest group of international tertiary students, are not presently allowed into Australia.

Limited flights and high prices will also likely cause headaches for many overseas students. Before the pandemic, Australia received about 1.8 million inbound passengers each month, the current figure is about 60 percent less.

Thousands of international students have studied online with Australian institutions during the past two years. Would some rather continue on that platform than pack their bags and dig even deeper into their pockets to pay for the experience of living and studying abroad?

Ellis, a University of Sydney sophomore, told Xinhua that the border reopening was encouraging but he would continue studying online in China and then go to Australia next March or June.

"You can't expect high efficiency and good performances from online study, but the current situation feels a bit confusing with various pilot plans and quarantine requirements," he said. "We will have the school holiday soon so I would rather stay a few more months and wait for more details to be unveiled."

Dr. Peter Hurley, from Victoria University's Mitchell Institute, can empathize with international students opting to continue studying online.

"I think there will always be students who want to study overseas but, yes, having seen the advantages of studying online there could be many of these students who now want to remain at home," Hurley told Xinhua.

Linda, who just enrolled in the University of Melbourne last year, and returned to China soon after the pandemic broke out in Australia, thought it would be more costly to go back now.

"There must be a large number of students flocking back to Australia after the border reopening, which may push up the prices of flight tickets and property renting and increase the risks of infections. There are still local transmissions and high case numbers in Melbourne," she said.

Although some students, who were already enrolled and have obtained valid visas, can overcome the red-tape regulations and limited travel options to come to Australia, the country's international education industry is still facing the challenge of winning back new students from other competitive markets, experts said.

Experts point to rival destinations such as the United States, Britain and Canada which continued to accept international students throughout much of the pandemic. These markets presumably now have a head start on Australia.

"Countries that have clearer border policies have an advantage," Mitchell Institute's Hurley said. "Studying overseas is a big commitment and it is important international students feel they won't be exposed to any changes in border policies caused by the pandemic." Enditem