The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the face of international higher education. The sector, previously dominated by the US, UK and Australia, is losing billions to falling international student enrolments. However, our research identifies a golden opportunity for Australia to rebound as a top international study destination – but that depends on an urgent and proactive response to the pandemic’s challenges.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said this week achieving 70% and 80% vaccination targets for Australia would create a “real opportunity” by allowing borders to reopen to international students. “It means a lot to our economy, it means a lot to our universities,” he said. The sector was worth an estimated A$40 billion to the economy, including about $10 billion in university fee revenue, but has shrunk during the pandemic.
Students still want to study abroad. The countries that respond best to the pandemic can gain competitive advantage and capture major shares of this lucrative global market. The key to seizing this opportunity is understanding COVID-19’s impact on international students and their changing needs, and moving swiftly to meet these needs.
For our recently published research we investigated COVID-19’s impact on international students. This was conducted in the second half of 2020 with international students in the Asia Pacific College of Business and Law at Charles Darwin University. CDU is the only university to have brought international students into Australia since the pandemic began.
What did the study reveal?
Our online survey revealed favourable ratings of the Australian government’s and the university’s pandemic responses. Both CDU and the government performed well in supporting student well-being, promoting hygiene and social distancing, and effective communication.
However, international students needed more financial assistance. Many lost their local jobs, as well as financial support from their home countries. This caused stress and mental health issues.
In-depth interviews with international students revealed the criteria they used for choosing their study destination were in a state of flux. New pandemic-related priorities include country infection and vaccination rates, border closures and diplomatic relations, as well as support interventions. These interventions are designed to help students continue their studies and deal with the impacts of COVID-19.
For example, like many Australian universities, CDU has intermittently switched to online teaching when required due to lockdowns, as well as promoting student hygiene. Among other things, it has also provided:
- free counselling and financial aid including grants of up to $2,000 for those in financial hardship
- groceries and meals to students who lost their jobs
- assistance with fees
- payment instalment options.
The students thought Australia had managed COVID-19 well compared to other countries. They also recommended CDU and Australia to friends whose studies had been disrupted in the US and UK.
Hopes of return put on hold
In November 2020 a CDU charter flight brought international students to Australia for the first (and only) time since the pandemic began. They arrived safely without any COVID-19 incidents via the Howard Springs quarantine facility (also known locally as Corona Springs).
These students were “very satisfied” and relieved they could continue their studies in Australia despite COVID-19. As one student said:
“This historical success absolutely gives international students confidence.”
Australia’s COVID-19 response and the international student arrivals last November gave hope to the whole Australian higher education sector. However, the promising initial response has stalled in 2021.
The government has stopped the arrival of further international students. Prioritising the return of Australians stranded abroad was the reason given. Meanwhile, Howard Springs has been underutilised, wasting an opportunity to quarantine international student arrivals.
Competitors will take advantage
In 2021 Australia’s higher education sector finds itself at a disadvantage compared to other countries, such as the UK, which remain open.
The stakes for Australian higher education could hardly be higher. The sector faces increasing losses in 2022 as the international students already in the system finish their degrees.
Other countries, including China and other Asian nations, are looking to capitalise on the situation. They are moving swiftly to try to capture the international students who would have come to Australia, but who are now seeking other study destinations.
Australia can still be the number one choice for international study. But that outcome depends on a clear and proactive COVID-19 strategy. This includes the careful reopening of borders and optimising the use of proven quarantine facilities.
Without a clear strategy Australia risks relegation to the minor leagues of the international higher education market. This would lose the billions of dollars in annual foreign income enjoyed before the pandemic. It would also waste the decades of effort and investment that built Australia’s reputation for international education excellence.