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The struggling university sector will get no help from the Victorian government to set up quarantine facilities for international students, while similar plans in other states have also stalled. By Rick Morton.

Getting overseas students back

Students at the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney.
Credit: AP

Australia’s mismanaged vaccination program has delivered another multibillion-dollar hit to the nation’s university sector, as plans to bring back existing international students face further delays or outright rejection.

The Saturday Paper can reveal the Victorian government has no intention of helping its faltering universities set up alternative quarantine arrangements for international students, despite international education being the state’s single-largest export market. Meanwhile, claims of progress in other states have been overhyped.

In South Australia, plans to set up additional quarantine facilities for returning international students – reportedly approved by the federal government months ago – have still not been realised.

The University of South Australia website prematurely announced that “students have been studying online in their home countries and will return to on campus study early in 2021” under a program designed in conjunction with the state’s universities and the South Australian government.

“Returning international students will fly to Adelaide on Singapore Airline flights. We are targeting the first of these flights to land in Adelaide in early 2021,” the statement reads.

This has not happened.

A South Australian government spokesperson told The Saturday Paper that the Marshall government is “currently working with educational institutions and universities to examine a range of solutions that may facilitate the Covid-safe return of international students”.

Even in New South Wales, where there has been significant support from Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Treasurer Dom Perrottet for the return of international students, expressions of interest for accommodation options under an alternative quarantine proposal for international students have so far yielded no firm plans.

“Universities are continuing to work closely and constructively with the state and federal governments to facilitate the safe return of international students back to Australia and to our local communities,” Professor Barney Glover, the vice-chancellor of Western Sydney University, said.

“We look forward to finalising plans for the pilot program with government and welcoming international students back to our campuses soon.”

Glover said the return of these students, worth billions to the Australian economy, is “vital for our post-Covid recovery”.

But timing is everything. Most international students, like their domestic peers, begin their courses at the start of each new year – a perhaps obvious but important point. Each delayed return of international students becomes a cumulative hit, stretching three years or more into the future. A lost enrolment today is a student who doesn’t graduate from an Australian institution at the end of their course.

International education is a $38 billion economy in Australia, supporting about 250,000 jobs, with fees from these students contributing $10 billion alone to universities in 2019.

Covid-19 gutted the university sector last year, but there was hope that at least some students could begin their courses in Australia this year. Those hopes were dashed by the Morrison government’s bungled vaccination program and confusing commentary about when or how Australia’s borders will reopen.

“Australia is in no hurry to open those borders, I assure you,” the prime minister told reporters during a press conference on Sunday of last week.

A timetable for all Australians to be vaccinated has been abandoned – this was meant to happen before the end of this year – due to “supply issues” and a scramble to secure more doses that were never locked in.

Australian Catholic University researcher Dr Omer Yezdani has run the numbers and concluded that even if one in five international students does not re-enrol in courses in Australia, this would be enough to throw half of the country’s universities into “financial turmoil or budget deficit”.

Yezdani’s analysis, published in The Conversation, shows that 20 institutions would be plunged into deficit under such a scenario – a conservative estimate – with most of these in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Among the universities that will be hardest hit are Macquarie, Charles Darwin, Central Queensland, University of NSW, University of Technology Sydney, RMIT, Charles Sturt, Notre Dame, New England and the University of Wollongong.

Victoria University researcher Dr Peter Hurley noted that the number of international student enrolments had already fallen by about 14 per cent in the year to November last year. This represents a loss of about 100,000 students.

He predicts total enrolments will fall by 50 per cent come the middle of next year.

“I think the worst-case scenario is what we are now facing,” Hurley, a policy fellow at the Mitchell Institute, tells The Saturday Paper. “We have yet to hit the bottom when it comes to international students. There is just this massive pinch point of people getting through the border.”

According to data from the federal Education Department, as of April 15, a further 150,000 international students who are still enrolled in Australian universities are stuck studying overseas because they cannot get into the country.

This is the twin edge of the crisis facing the sector, and the nation more broadly.

“Think of it like a dam, it is constantly going down and there is no flow,” Hurley says. “If we used all of Australia’s quarantine places just for international students, it would take us six months just to process the backlog, and that’s before you get to the problem of getting new ones into the country.”

To that end, he says, any small-scale quarantine program developed between universities and their respective state governments will do little to cushion the financial blow.

Enrolled international students continue to leave their programs in Australia. In October last year, there were about 400,000 still in the country, but this figure has since dropped to 317,000.

In his October modelling for the Mitchell Institute, Hurley suggested enrolment figures will more than halve from late 2019 to the middle of 2022 if travel restrictions remain in place.

These students’ departure means some $21 billion in lost spending on goods and services.

 

On the last day of March, Alan Tudge, federal minister for Education, told an audience at Melbourne’s RMIT that “with the vaccine rollout under way, I am increasingly hopeful that student arrivals in larger numbers will occur by semester 1 of next year”.

He said that “there is still the opportunity to bring students back in small, phased pilots”.

“This could occur if an institution works with the state or territory government and presents a plan to us for quarantining international students,” he said. “The plan must be approved by the chief health officer of the state or territory and there must be quarantine space available above and beyond that presently used for returning Australians.”

Charles Darwin University became the first in Australia to do just this, chartering a flight at the end of November last year and helping returning international students isolated at the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs quarantine facility.

There were just 63 students.

“The biggest question now is: What is the rate of return? That’s the issue of the border pinch point,” Hurley says. “If you open the borders and say ‘international students are back’ and only 500 come back, it’s a drop in the ocean.”

While the vaccination program delays have lengthened the border “pinch points”, the university sector has already been pummelled by a confounding special effort to exclude employees from the Commonwealth’s job-saving JobKeeper program.

University research, because of historical funding quarrels with the Commonwealth government, is now largely funded by fees from international students. The Covid-19 crisis has shown the fragility of this arrangement.

Tudge notes that the Morrison government delivered an extra $1 billion to universities for research programs in last year’s budget, but this was in response to a gap that will continue to grow as a result of its higher education reforms passed last year.

And researchers say it’s not just an issue of funding but of the researchers themselves. International students who would have started their postgraduate careers in Australia have not been able to do so.

“We are absolutely missing opportunities,” Hurley says. “That just comes from having the border closed. All those benefits that you have from globalisation, international students are part of that.”

Last year, Universities Australia estimated the sector would lose $16 billion by 2023 as a result of declining international student numbers. Hurley’s Mitchell Institute arrived at a similar, if slightly higher, conclusion: $19 billion.

Those models seemed stark at the time, but even though the rate of losses has so far been slower than expected, the crisis has become prolonged and there is a significant lag between decisions taken now and the financial effects.

“People are making their decisions now for next year’s enrolments,” Hurley says. “Even if borders reopened now it is going to take a long time for things to get back to where they were.”

Right now, according to Education Department data, there are 145,000 fewer international student visa holders than there were in March last year. This doesn’t directly correlate with enrolments but it comes close and is a useful proxy for how things are changing.

“It seems to me that the fate of international students is tied to lots of other groups of people,” Hurley says. “Whatever our policy is for returning Australians, then that is how international students will be treated. It’s all linked. That is why the vaccine is such an issue.

“It’s a real shock, a population shock, of people who would normally be coming but are not anymore.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Stuck at the border".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.