international students in Australia
New findings show how the loss of international students impact not just university coffers, but the quality of Australian institutions. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

Australian university revenue fell 6% in 2020, according to a recent finding from the Mitchell Institute. The pandemic has brought about the first revenue dip in a decade — and analysts hint things will get worse before they get better. Just what does this mean for international students in Australia?

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson warned: “Further delay to reopening Australia’s borders past 2021 will have consequences [for] universities and other providers – as well as national prosperity – over multiple years.”

Mitchell Institute’s Dr Peter Hurley believes this shows how much Australian universities need international students. “Australian universities will recover pretty quickly if international students are able to enrol,” he says, “but the downturn will continue for longer as international borders remain closed in Australia.”

international students in Australia

The loss of international students has highlighted the benefits they bring to Australia. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

Unfortunately, it is only the tip of the red flag for international enrolments in Australia, which would typically skyrocket this time of year. “Australian international student enrolments peak in semester two, which is July to November in Australia. The situation remains that as current international students complete, there are not new students to take their place,” Dr Hurley explains, expanding on the “Australian investment in higher education” report.

True value of international students in Australia

The loss of international students has highlighted the benefits they bring to Australia — beyond filling university coffers. Angela Lehmann, head of research at The Lygon Group, says international students in Australia are connectors, community members, and drivers of development.

“International students, as young, globally-mobile people play a really key role in building multicultural communities and globally-minded young Australians,” she comments. As ‘knowledge brokers’, they promote the country (along with its norms, values, and products). “They participate in the active construction of ideas of ‘Australia’ around the world. This role is sometimes referred to as ‘soft diplomacy’ but I think the term belies the importance of this role in economics, trade, tourism and national security,” she elaborates.

international students in Australia

Everything that happens in the Australian public sphere is being heard and interpreted by students and their families. Source: Patrick Hamilton/AFP

Quoting the losses observed over the past year, Lehmann adds, “There are parts of the Australian media that like to discuss how international students somehow ‘damage’ the quality of Australian education but this is far from the truth. Not only do their fees support Australian students to have a greater choice of courses and degrees with expert academic staff, but they contribute to global classrooms where multiple viewpoints and life experiences can be shared and interpreted.”

There are approximately 303,000 international students in Australia right now — down 48% from November 2019 — and 150,000 student visa holders outside the country. Dr Hurley believes the next couple of months will reveal more about the future of higher education in Australia, “as the first 2021 cohort finish and transition off student visas.”

“For many waiting offshore or continuing with online learning offshore depends on very complex and personal circumstances,” Lehmann adds, highlighting the role of mental health support, financial sustainability, and family dynamics. That’s why it’s more important than ever for Australian institutions to make students feel connected, welcomed, and understood.

Return plan more crucial than ever

Many students took the National Cabinet Four Stage Plan — in which borders may open upon 80% vaccination rate — as a step in the right direction. “However, this took a step back in recent weeks as debate surrounding the modelling used for the plan entered the media. Students on social media are now expressing renewed sentiment that they have been ‘led on’ by Australia,” Lehmann says.

Lecturer at RMIT University Binoy Kampmark suggests, “A vaccination passport arrangement would go some way towards alleviating this problem in a manner that lowers risk while aiding an ailing sector.” Waiting for 80% vaccination (which is realistically achieved in December) may exacerbate the already-dire situation. Any positive measure would be welcomed with open arms at this stage — but how much longer can international students wait until they’re forced into plan B?

Lehmann advises stakeholders to take this as a reminder: Everything that happens in the Australian public sphere is being heard and interpreted by students and their families. “Everything our politicians say, every policy announcement, and every event in Australia is being reacted to offshore,” she says. “This is a very delicate moment for international education in Australia and it is important that we, as a sector and as a country, understand the ways that students are interpreting policy, messaging, and media.”