Coronavirus outbreak thwarts rescue plan for Australia's universities

People walk past a sign for Australian universities in Melbourne's central business district, on June 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Plans to fly international students into Australia in time for the new semester later this month have collapsed due to a coronavirus outbreak that's engulfed the country's second-most populous state.

A pilot programme designed to allow 350 foreign students to resume their studies was postponed after the Australian National University (ANU) and Canberra University expressed concerns over the trajectory of the virus that's prompted authorities to lock down the city of Melbourne for six weeks.

The universities, which had planned on paying for the students' two-week mandatory quarantine with the help of the Australian Capital Territory government, said they'd press pause on the plans until the outlook becomes more clear.

"This is not an end to the programme - just a delay," Professor Brian Schmidt, the ANU's vice-chancellor and president, said in a statement Thursday (July 9). "We remain committed to ensuring our students can continue their studies back in Australia when the time is right."

Similar trials in other states, including across Victoria and South Australia, were also thwarted by the recent surge in cases.

It's a blow to the A$38 billion (S$36.8 billion) export industry, Australia's fourth largest. The sector has become reliant on overseas students who make up roughly a quarter of all enrollments - the second-highest ratio in the world after Luxembourg - and 40 per cent of student revenues due to the higher fees they are charged.

The fallout from the virus is expected to cut revenues by A$16 billion by 2023.

The pandemic isn't the sector's only worry. With 37 per cent of its international university students coming from China in 2019, recent escalating tensions between Canberra and Beijing is adding to pressure on the industry.

Victoria state, which is the centre of the current outbreak, will also be hit by the double-barrelled setback. Its two largest exporters by value are the University of Melbourne and Monash University, and its economy is underpinned by education and tourism.

"Unfortunately, the reinstatement of Stage 3 restrictions across metropolitan Melbourne means we are unlikely to be able to progress with these plans at this time," the University of Melbourne's vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell said in a statement. "However, we will be ready to respond quickly when government policy changes and the time is right."

It could be the final nail in the coffin for students waiting to recommence, or begin, their studies in Australia. The frustration is palpable within the international student cohort, and could risk damaging future demand.

Monash University student Jacky Zhang, 19, who is stuck in Guangzhou, China, has been waiting, alongside tens of thousands of others, for the Australian government to help him return to the country since December 2019 to continue his studies.

"We all had hope that Australia would bring us back," he said, pointing to Canada, the UK and parts of Europe that have already permitted the return of international students.

The government's sluggish response to predicaments like his, and the unpredictable messaging from the universities, have given him reason to consider transferring his degree to Europe or Malaysia, he said.

"They keep giving us hope, but we end up with disappointment."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.