Uncertainty looms for international students who are wondering when Victoria’s borders open to them. Source: William West/AFP

Victoria in Australia depends on international education more than any other state in the country: Approximately 227,000 international students from 170 countries lived in Melbourne last year, contributing 13.7 billion Australian dollars in export revenue to Victoria’s coffers. Despite that, the question over when Victoria’s borders will open to international students remains unanswered, and many students are being left in limbo. 

The state has yet to commit to a timeline for the return of international students in 2021. According to The Age, the state is under increasing pressure to outline its plan for the return of international students for the upcoming academic year. Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan told the portal that returning international students to Victoria was the state government’s responsibility and that the federal government’s focus was on bringing stranded Australians back to the country.

“The Victorian government is responsible for quarantine in Victoria as well as planning for the return of international students in that state,” he said. “States and territories were asked to develop a plan for the return of international students that was endorsed by the Premier and state Chief Medical Officer. Victoria has not submitted a plan. The federal government is working with states and territories on the resumption of international education, once we have prioritised the return of Australians.”

A Victorian government spokesman said there are currently 120,000 international students in Victoria and that they “look forward to welcoming more back in 2021”. He said the budget provided AU$33.4 million to support the return of students to the state.

Will the continued closure of Victoria’s borders damage its reputation as a top study destination?

Victoria’s borders

People cross a street in Melbourne’s central business district on September 28, 2020 as five million residents in Australia’s second biggest city emerged from an almost two-month overnight curfew as just five new coronavirus cases were recorded in worst-hit Victoria state. Source: William WEST/AFP

International education contributes billions in revenue to Victoria. Its capital city, Melbourne, was rated third best student city in the world in the QS Best Student Cities Ranking 2019, and the top student city in Australia. However, the number of international students in Melbourne is approximately half last year’s levels, with no clear pathway for their return.

Director of Economic Development and International at the City of Melbourne Andrew Wear said modelling by consultants PwC predicted a AU$1.5 billion drop in education sector output in the municipality. For each dollar lost in university tuition fees, another AU$1.15 is lost in the broader economy due to a reduction in student spending. Wear said last month’s Victorian budget was built on an assumption there would be no significant return of international students until 2022.

Despite the country’s successful efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, Australia risks losing its international student market share to countries such as the UK and Canada — which are already allowing the return of offshore students — if its borders remain closed to international students in 2021, said Wear.

With billions of dollars at stake, the City of Melbourne has put together a taskforce to advise on how the sector could be revived. They are urging the Victorian and federal governments to bolster efforts to woo international students back to Melbourne, including offering discounted public transport, improving accommodation and support for students in quarantine, and fast-tracking the development of key precincts including Fishermans Bend and Parkville. The taskforce comprises leaders from Melbourne’s university and TAFE sector, and the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Lord Mayor of Melbourne Sally Capp will write to the Victorian and federal governments urging them to introduce “all necessary measures” to attract students back to the state in time for the 2021 academic year, said The Age.

Tehan previously said no state or territory has met a federal government deadline to outline their plans for the return of international students in 2021 by the end of November 2020. Despite that, the Northern Territory became the first jurisdiction to welcome international students into the country under a pilot programme with Charles Darwin University (CDU) despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that international students’ return to Australia will be paused to prioritise citizens. 

Indian international students could be next to return to Australia. CDU is planning a series of charter flights to bring international students back to Australia following the success of its first pilot scheme.