Australia: Will international students return to universities in Victoria by 2021?

universities in Victoria
International students still don't know when they will be able to return to universities in Victoria as the state hasn’t committed to a timeline. Source: Ulises Ruiz/AFP

Uncertainty looms for international students who are wondering when they can return to their universities in Victoria as the state’s International Education Advisory Council (IEAC) was disbanded in September while a five-year international education strategy expired in June, according to the Financial Review. There is no replacement for either yet.

The IEAC’s inception was announced back in 2011 to inform the Australian government’s development of a national, long-term strategy for the international education sector. Quoting an anonymous member of the council, the Financial Review reported the source as saying that it would be “hugely challenging” to get international students back to Victoria in 2021 without the council’s coordinating role.

Both the Northern Territory and South Australia are preparing to welcome a small number of international students to its shores from late October onwards. Unlike other states, Victoria hasn’t committed to a timeline. The state was home to about a quarter-million international students last year. “The Victorian Government is continuing to work with the Commonwealth on a detailed proposal and we look forward to welcoming international students back to Victoria when it is safe to do so,” a spokesperson for the state government previously said in a statement.

International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood, who was also a council member, said compared with other states, Victoria — which depends on international education more than any other — had no mechanisms available to ensure a substantial return to normal business. “Victoria’s International Education Sector Strategy expired on June 30. There’s been no further budget allocation for that or the official advisory council,” he was quoted saying.

Honeywood also questioned why Victoria’s Minister for Trade Martin Pakula — in charge of the oversight of strategy for international education — is not giving the industry priority compared to other state counterparts as this sector earned 12 billion Australian dollars in export income for the state in 2019.

Continued uncertainty for universities in Victoria?

A member of IEAC who was present at the final council meeting on Sept. 24, 2020 said the chairman, former Deakin University vice-chancellor Jane den Hollander, told members there was no guidance on continuing its work and they would “have to wait” on a decision from the minister.

Meanwhile, a five-year strategy for boosting international students in Victoria expired in June; Honeywood said no work has been done on a replacement strategy. Each state in Australia has an international student strategy which sets the policy framework, student services, numbers that can be supported, among others, he said.

“We should be enrolling now. We need to be showing overseas students that Australia is keen to restart and we can support them once they are here,” he told the Financial Review.

A spokeswoman for Victorian trade minister Pakula was quoted saying that the standard appointment of current Victorian IEAC members concludes in November, with a new committee “expected to be in place by the end of the year to support and advise on economic recovery planning”.

“The International Education Strategy remains the key policy document for this sector and work has been undertaken in consultation with industry on a recovery strategy. We are continuing to work with the Commonwealth on a detailed proposal for the safe return of international students.”

A Monash representative told The Australian Financial Review that the university is in discussions with peak bodies as well as state and federal governments on ways to help international students return to Australia. These included Universities Australia and the Group of Eight which, “advocate on behalf of all universities to ensure the concerns and needs of the tertiary sector are understood.”

Victoria is the epicentre of the country’s second wave, but cases are now decreasing significantly and its capital Melbourne recently lifted its lockdown after 111 days.