Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Raj Kiran Grewal, who lives in Mohali in India’s Punjab state, saw Australia as the ideal place to do her MBA.
But after spending 20 months trying to circumvent the country’s extremely strict border controls, Grewal is so sick of “false hope” that she considers studying in the United States or Canada instead.
“Australia is definitely not the right option because they just want the money from international students and they do not care about the rest,” Grewal said.
“I am really frustrated with the way college and immigration have treated the stranded overseas people, including international students, and relatives of the people living in Australia,” she added, explaining how she postponed her course when Australia crossed its borders. closed early. 2020 only for her university to cancel her enrollment after she refused to accept the option to study online.
Grewal is one of many international students looking elsewhere during Australia’s self-imposed isolation, which has raised fears of long-term damage to one of the country’s most lucrative industries.
Students from China, India and other Asian countries have long been attracted to Australia to study because of its high-ranking universities, English-speaking environment and comfortable lifestyle. Prior to the pandemic, international education contributed 40 billion Australian dollars ($ 29.5 billion) to the economy, making the sector the fourth largest exporter after iron ore, coal and gas.
International students accounted for 21 percent of all university enrollments in 2019, compared to an average of 6 percent among developed countries, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
As Australia’s decision to close its borders in March 2020 forced people to look elsewhere, international enrollments fell by more than 200,000 in the period from 20 months to August this year, according to data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment.
In August, the number of students from overseas dropped to the lowest number since 2015, to just over 550,000. Chinese citizens made up the bulk of foreign students, followed by those from India, Nepal, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Earlier this month, recruitment platform Adventus reported that applications by international students have declined by 51 percent since March, while applications to Canada, the UK and the United States have risen by 148-422 percent.
Although Australia reopened its borders to citizens and permanent residents on November 1, the government has not provided a timetable for when international students will be able to return to the country en masse.
States and territories, including Victoria and New South Wales, have announced pilot schemes to welcome international students in extremely limited numbers from next month. Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said in October he hopes tens of thousands of students will be able to return sometime next year.
About 145,000 student visa holders currently exist in limbo overseas after postponing their studies or choosing to do their coursework online.
Sovia Gill, an international student who has been studying online from her hometown of Kapurthala, India’s Punjab state, since early 2020, said a number of her friends had switched to universities in Canada due to Australia’s lack of clarity on reopening. .
“They are already established,” said Gill, who is studying for a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Southern Queensland.
“Because I am already halfway through my program, I have already spent thousands of dollars. I can not let it go and waste all that money. ”
Some analysts have warned of a years-long financial downturn for the sector. In August, the Melbourne-based Mitchell Institute predicted that the industry had not yet seen the worst of its losses after university profits fell to $ 1.6 billion in 2020.
In a report the same month, Ernst & Young suggested that the demand for higher education would never recover to pre-pandemic levels, with university revenues likely to fall by $ 5-6 billion by 2030.
“I think universities are nervous,” said Peter Hurley, an education policy fellow at the Mitchell Institute.
“However, I think that even an intake that is much lower than pre-pandemic days would be a relief!”
Hurley said lasting damage was a concern, but he was optimistic about the medium- to long-term outlook given the sector’s “enormous resilience in the face of the pandemic.”
Andrew Norton, an expert on higher education policy at the Australian National University, said international enrollments would not return to 2019 levels any time soon, but it was difficult to predict the long-term trajectory.
“Australia has ongoing advantages in proximity to Asia and climate,” Norton said. “But other factors such as competing strategies, political tensions with China, migration institutions, regulatory changes around English language ability and future outreach events such as COVID can all affect the size of the market.”
Some industry figures maintain that the sector’s prospects remain rosy.
Anne-Marie Lansdown, Deputy CEO of Universities Australia, which represents universities in the country, said the “fundamental attractiveness” of third-level education in Australia has not changed and students are likely to return in large numbers next year.
“Our universities remain among the best in the world, attracting scholars from more than 140 different countries before the pandemic,” Lansdown said, adding that 91 per cent of international students surveyed in Australia in 2020 had a positive experience in the country reported.
“Universities have worked incredibly hard to support all students who have adapted very resiliently to online learning – regardless of their geographical location.”
Even though Australia’s international education industry is finally recovering, there is no doubt about the frustration that students like Grewal feel after nearly two years in limbo.
“They should have provided more clarity on reopening borders so students could discover something different to do in that period,” Grewal said. “They did not have much understanding … That is why statistics show a decrease in the number of international students.”