Pressure on international student sector
By Sam Fitzpatrick, Regional Vice President and Head of APAC, Western Union Business Solutions
Monday, 12 July, 2021
Bouncing back from COVID-19 is no mean feat for any industry and Australia’s education sector is still feeling reeling from the effect of the pandemic. Contributing a considerable $40 billion to the local economy the international education market has been halted due to limited travel, tough entry requirements and an unclear narrative due to ever-changing rules and regulations.
Currently, the biggest challenge is the movement of students into the country and reinvigorating the attraction for students to choose Australia given the rigid border restrictions and ongoing snap lockdowns. Considerable sector-wide changes are necessary to ensure that Australia's international education system remains competitive. Support for the international education sector must come from multiple sources from the federal and state governments, local and international tertiary institutions, and industry stakeholders.
Support from all sides
Australia's higher education market cannot afford to miss the next intake of international students for another year. If new overseas student enrolments continue to spiral year on year, universities will bear the financial burden, and the ripple effects will have repercussions for the economy.
One initiative proposed by the NSW Government will see thousands of international students brought into the country beyond the current 3000-person weekly travel cap. Students would need to pay for the usual 14-day quarantine period and stay in student accommodation. Returning students could potentially reside in a 600-bed tower nearing completion at The Block in Redfern to support this proposal. Both purpose-built and current student accommodation are ideally suited to quarantine as they have individual amenities that limit infection risk.
In addition, the South Australian Government has approved a plan to let incoming international students serve two weeks of quarantine at Parafield Airport in Adelaide. Both of these proposals are waiting for federal government approval to proceed; however, they are expecting resistance as the federal government is hesitant to open borders and risk further community outbreaks. Australia's largest student accommodation provider, Scape, currently has 14,000 bedrooms across Australia and another 10,000 close to completion, at only 10–20% occupancy, providing the perfect opportunity for university students to quarantine and commence their studies.
For the international student sector, partnerships with foreign universities are critical. The hybrid model of in-person and digital experiences through offshore 'hubs' allows students to enrol and commence their degrees with an Australian university, creating a pathway for local study when borders reopen.
The action needed here is two-fold: supporting international students' return and providing momentum for graduates to remain in Australia. The state and federal governments need to work together to incentivise students to enrol through programs that enhance post-study opportunities and provide a pathway for permanent residency, similar to initiatives running in the UK and Canada.
Until then, what now?
With Australia's borders unlikely to reopen until 2022 and no concrete plans from the government on bringing international students back down under, universities must pivot their domestic offering to increase engagement in the local market.
Australian universities proved their agility when the pandemic first struck, quickly transitioning to a hybrid learning model that allowed enrolled students to continue studying. These digital offerings enable international students to commence their studies with the hope of returning to Australia to start on-campus learning once borders reopen. It also provides opportunities for universities to maintain and optimally grow their student numbers.
Leveraging this digital shift and continuing to evolve their offering, universities can provide short-course programs targeted towards postgraduates or those working full-time, providing accessible micro-credentials for Australians looking to upskill whilst also delivering a much-needed boost to the higher education system.
Australia can return the international education sector to its previous health and rapidly grow engagement with students worldwide. In our favour, we have relatively low COVID-19 numbers and a near-normal lifestyle for those out of quarantine. However, to reinvigorate the sector, we need to work with all stakeholders from a local to federal level to drive this growth.
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