Late border reopening, trade tariffs: Why Chinese students slow to return to Australia

international students in victoria
Chinese students are turning away from Victoria, while Indian and Nepalese enrolments are rising. Source: William West/AFP

The number of international students in Victoria has increased from last year, but Indian students have dethroned China as the top country of origin for international students in the state.

Quoting data from the Department of Home Affairs, Erudera College News reported that the total number of international students in Victoria is currently 96,300, an increase from 68,400 in 2021 and 151,500 in 2020.

In 2020, China was the top country of origin for international students in Victoria (25.1%), followed by India (24.2%), Nepal (5.8%) and Malaysia (5.1%), said the portal.

Recent data shows that out of 96,300 international students in state, 24.7% are from India, followed by Chinese (18.9%), Nepalis (6.5%) and Vietnamese (6.2%).

An education expert suspects that Chinese students are slow to return to Australia due to the country’s late reopening to the world, causing students to opt for more easily accessible destinations such as the UK. Source: Patrick Hamilton/AFP

Chinese students exploring other options?

International students have faced a series of setbacks in attempting to return to Australia since the pandemic. Aside from a nearly two-year-long border closure that kept most travellers out, reports suggest students’ perceptions of the country’s quality of education has dropped, prompting them to seek out other countries for higher education instead.

Paving the way are Chinese students, who are turning away from Australia in increasing numbers. President of the Education Consultants Association of Australia Gary Li suspects this is due to the country’s late reopening to the world, causing students to opt for more easily accessible destinations such as the UK. 

“Some return flights cost over A$10,000 at the moment,” Li said. “I think you will only see the number of students grow once China opens its border and flights return to normal.”

Li noted that students may increasingly prefer to remain in China. “The Chinese government changed its regulations to recognise online study degrees,” he told The Age. “As long as that remains, there will be a temptation to stay home.”

One major factor pointed out by Li is the growing tensions between Australia and China, which may be playing a role in pushing students away from the country. From a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics to lodging trade complaints at the World Trade Organisation, the two countries have been at odds for the better part of the year — with no end to this in sight. 

The rise of anti-Asian sentiments in light of the pandemic may be playing a role in deterring Chinese students from pursuing their education overseas, as well. This, combined with the perks of staying in China — such as local tuition fees and more opportunities opening up — may provide an irresistible temptation to students on the fence about studying overseas. 

More than that, China is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the realm of higher education. It’s home to some of the best universities in the world, two of which rank among the top 20 globally, according to Times Higher Education. Despite its hard zero-COVID policy pushing international students away, there is no doubt that for locals, pursuing an education in China could be alluring. 

Chinese students are preferring to go to the UK and US, among other countries. Source: William West/AFP

International students in Victoria largely from India, Nepal

Meanwhile, Indian students are leaving in droves to study in Australia. Following Australia’s border opening, studies found that some students have returned to Australia in larger numbers from some countries than others — this includes students from India and Nepal who were the quickest to return.

Australia remains a popular study destination for a number of reasons, including its multicultural environment, world-class educational facilities, and post-study work opportunities, among others. 

Despite a growing number of Indian students returning to Australia, students have previously expressed a growing disinterest in an Australian education due to reasons such as underpayment in the labour market, Australia’s quality of education and policies that affected the arrivals of Indian nationals. 

It is clear that the Australian government is attempting to rectify this. Recently, the country announced an initiative to form a joint task-force for a mutual qualifications recognition arrangement, making it easier for Indian students to pursue their education in the country. There’s alsothe Maitri initiatives to support Indian students at top universities in Canberra. 

Still, universities and student accommodation providers are reporting more international students in Victoria than expected. La Trobe University told The Age that more than 1,000 new students have started this semester — twice the number of last year’s figures. Similarly, Melbourne University saw an uptick in international student enrolment, with figures rising to 23,000 compared to 21,000 in 2021.