international student return
Universities are calling for "urgent activation" of an international student return plan. Source: Peter Parks/AFP

Universities in South Australia are making the case to expedite international student return after new data revealed that these institutions have suffered a 33% enrolment dip during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A major part of this is the “urgent activation” of an international student return plan, said Sebastian Raneskold, Flinders University’s vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor. “This could include dedicated quarantining facilities for international students to ensure their return doesn’t affect general repatriation efforts,” he told News Corp Australia.

News Corp also reports that enrolment numbers in Australian universities have dropped 20% among Chinese students and 35% among Indian students. Industry insiders, therefore, find the mid-2022 estimation for international student return rather worrying, especially in view of the COVID-19 situation in South Asia. Students from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan have not only been struggling with the pandemic back home but facing the premature end of their higher education journey in Australia.

international student return

A traveller walks past a sign for Virgin Australia in the departures area at Adelaide Airport in South Australia. Source: Brenton Edwards/AFP

Support needed for international student return, welfare

Dr. Nira Rahman and Dr. Wajeehah Aayeshah from the University of Melbourne wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that this has also been a stressful time for South Asian students who are alone in Australia, away from their friends and family. “University of Melbourne data reaffirms that these international students have felt a heightened sense of isolation, a sense of losing their support network, and profound anxiety. The worsening situation in their home countries has not made things easier for them,” they shared.

Quoting their duty of care as academics, the professors expressed an urgent need to create “safe and inclusive spaces” for these students. “We can continue to offer spaces for them to express themselves, acknowledge their hardships, and offer mental and financial support. Additionally, we can offer peer support, such as establishing opportunities for them to work at food banks where they can access free food without feeling humiliated,” they wrote.

Last week, Australia’s budget announcement hinted at an international student return later this year. Small, phased programmes should kick off by the end of this year and ramp up from 2022. In a recent interview with Sky News, federal education minister Alan Tudge confirmed that plans are being developed by New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.

The government for South Australia is also working closely with the commonwealth to finalise a plan that “meets all of the protocols and ensures a safe and sustainable programme for both students and the South Australian community,” StudyAdelaide CEO Karyn Kent was quoted saying. This includes assessing student accommodation facilities to see whether they are fit to quarantine returnees, said Kent.