Australia struggling to reboot international education sector

Australia’s strict travel curbs have left the international education sector frozen.
Australia’s strict travel curbs have left the international education sector frozen.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Australia is struggling to find a way to bring back foreign students and reboot its lucrative international education sector, prompting concerns that the students may start looking to study in other countries.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, Australia's strict travel curbs have left the sector frozen, leading to a loss of about 100,000 students and costing the economy about A$10 billion (S$10 billion) in the past year.

The losses have forced universities to cut staff and courses.

But a series of plans by states and universities to try to safely bring back foreign students have repeatedly failed to start.

New South Wales, the most populous state, has proposed a pilot programme in which 250 students will be allowed to fly in from overseas on charter flights every two weeks, going up to 500 students per fortnight by the end of the year.

The students, expected to initially come mainly from China, Singapore and South Korea, will be quarantined in special student accommodation in the inner city.

The plan has been approved by the health authorities and police but has been put on hold due to the state's current Covid-19 crisis.

The New South Wales Premier, Ms Gladys Berejiklian, said last month that the plan will be resumed after the state emerges from its current lockdown.

The lockdown is scheduled to end on Aug 28, but may be extended as the current surge in cases, caused by the highly infectious Delta strain of the coronavirus, has proved difficult to contain. Case numbers have gradually been increasing, with 262 new local infections recorded on Sunday (Aug 8).

In Victoria, the state government has been in slow-moving talks with Canberra over a plan to bring back students. But the authorities have reportedly not yet agreed on quarantine arrangements.

Australia has barred entry to most non-residents and placed caps on the number of overseas arrivals, meaning that international students have been unable to enter the country for more than a year.

The state of South Australia is planning to proceed with a trial to fly in students, possibly starting later this month.

Up to 160 students will be allowed to arrive every two weeks. They will undergo quarantine at a facility at an airport in northern Adelaide.

The state's Premier Steven Marshall said the trial was due to proceed as long as a recent outbreak remained suppressed.

The state last recorded cases on July 29, when it had two local infections.

"I am hopeful that it will start next month," Mr Marshall told Parliament late last month.

"A lot of work has been done on preparing that site... We're very keen to get (international students) back to support our universities, to support our economy and to support jobs."

Australia has retained a large number of students through online learning and has allowed many to defer studies.

But recent analysis has found that the country is at risk of losing students to other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, which are starting to allow the quarantine-free entry of vaccinated students and other travellers.

A survey of 6,000 prospective students by student recruitment and data firm IDP Connect found that 39 per cent of respondents were likely to switch destinations if they could gain faster access to face-to-face teaching, with 37 per cent unlikely to switch and the remainder uncertain.

The chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, Mr Phil Honeywood, said last week that Australia must adopt plans to allow students to return or risk losing out to competitor countries.

"Clearly the latest report underlines that international students caught offshore are losing patience and have little hope of returning here for face-to-face study," he told The Australian Financial Review.

Before the pandemic, Australia's international education sector was worth about A$40 billion a year.

An Indonesian student, Mr Najamuddin Idris, told The Sydney Morning Herald late last month that he had been due to begin an international law master's in Melbourne last year but did not want to study online and has switched to a university in the United Kingdom.

"Poor Internet connection is still a major issue here in Indonesia, especially because I do not live in a big city," he said.

"I also asked my fellow Indonesian students who had already started their studies online at Australian universities. Almost all of them deeply regretted their decision. They told me to change my study destination to Europe, Canada or the US."

Ms Vanessa Teo, a 22-year-old Singaporean who is a second-year medical student from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, returned to Singapore in March last year and had online classes until the end of the year.

In July last year, the university told her that if she could not come back by April this year, she would have to defer her studies.

"If I cannot return to Australia by January 2022, I will have to defer again for another year," she said.

"This is something that is troubling and causing a lot of anxiety because there is no certainty.

"The Singapore-Australia travel bubble seems to be going nowhere, and state government pilot programmes to bring international students back into Australia are taking quite a while to get approved by the federal government. I also feel that deferring is not a sustainable solution."

Additional reporting by Ng Wei Kai