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Tertiary Institutions in Australia: Education or Industry?

While individuals across the world and all sectors of society have suffered hardships because of the COVID-19 pandemic, personal circumstances meant that enduring lockdowns and surviving isolation was harder for some than for others. Students living far away from their families, often separated by oceans, were among those that faced particularly challenging times. In 2015, 244 million people were not living in the country they were born in and hence classified as international migrants as reported by the United Nations. This number, of course, includes many young people that choose to or are forced to go abroad in search of improved educational and work opportunities, and Australia is a popular destination for many such young students. In countries such as Australia, where border closures meant that not only non-citizens but also Australians faced great difficulties in entering the country, many people struggled being away from their loved ones for prolonged periods of time. Some were faced with the choice of either spending an unimaginably long time away from their families or going to see their family and then being unable to return. However, the difficult times experienced by international students were largely unacknowledged, which is surprising due to the importance of this group to the Australian economy and society.

According to the Reserve Bank of Australia, Health & Education is the industry with the greatest share of output, coming first in front of even the mining sector. The Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reports that education is the country’s largest export when considering services (as opposed to goods). In fact, in the 12 months leading up to October 2019, in excess of 917,000 international students were enrolled in educational institutions in Australia. Naturally, not only the tuition fees paid by international students are of interest to the Australian economy, but also related expenditure concerning rent, tourism, retail, and hospitality. Alongside the economic benefits, the fresh perspectives brought by international students, both social and academic, should not be underestimated.

Photo by Stefan K on Unsplash: State Library of Victoria in the Melbourne, Australia (A popular study spot for students)

One of the cornerstones of Australia’s COVID-19 policy was a hard border closure, making it near to impossible for citizens and non-citizens alike to enter the country. According to Al Jazeera, approximately 130,000 international students were shut out of Australia since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Furthermore, the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment indicates that international students numbers decreased by 17% in September 2021 compared to the previous year. Of the top five countries of origin (China, India, Nepal, Vietnam and Malaysia), student numbers decreased relatively evenly with percentage decreases between 11% and 15%, although the number of Malaysian students decreased by 24%. These are all substantial decreases, especially given the fact that it is likely that lower numbers of international students can be attributed more to decreased new enrolments rather than to students dropping out of already commenced multi year degree programmes.

During the pandemic, international students still residing in Australia received some support from the Australian Government, including access to grants and payments to aid with expenses such as rent or utilities, as well as provisions for food assistance. However, stakeholders often lamented that the government was unable to provide students with a medium-term perspective. Many students will have had to spend nearly two years of their university education studying online if they decided to leave Australia right at the start of the pandemic. This is quite a heavy prospect, given that these students expected to have an enriching life experience living abroad as well as access to quality in-person education. While most professors put in effort to make the online learning experience a valuable one, it is without doubt that students were not able to experience all that they expected to in a university environment. The perceived diminished quality of education was associated with a need for staff cuts at universities, considering they also felt the consequences of the economic crisis associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, one in five jobs in tertiary education institutions disappeared in the year leading up to May 2021 according to ABC News.

Given the educational sector’s and hence the international students’ importance to the Australian economy, the Australian Government’s perceived neglect of the plight of these students is disappointing. Throughout 2020 and most of 2021, state and federal governments have determinedly pursued their unofficial zero covid policy. While officially described as a suppression strategy instead of an elimination strategy in health policy terms, in practice, no cases of COVID-19 were tolerated until the emergence of the Delta variant. However, it is important to note that a blanket statement on COVID-19 related policies is impossible due to the vast differences between individual states and territories. These entities experience vast political power relative to the federal government, caused by the fact that Australia (similarly to the United States and Germany) is a federation of states. While this strategy undoubtedly allowed Australia to save many lives and avoid the disastrous COVID-19 outbreaks seen in other countries, it is obvious that every approach comes at a cost.

Australia’s staunch approach to border rules regarding international students is likely to have long-lasting social and economic repercussions. SBS News, an Australian news broadcaster, reported that many international students are now seeking other destinations after tiring of the Australian Government’s unpredictable actions. International students were disappointed time and time again during the pandemic, and often left feeling that they were not seen as a priority. Originally, the Australian border was meant to reopen to international students on December 1, 2021 after nearly two years of closure, but this was postponed to December 15 due to the arrival of the Omicron variant. While it now appears as if students will be allowed to re-enter the country on this date, there is no telling whether there will be future similar restrictions. Additionally, it may be difficult for the education sector as a whole to recover, as many international students have headed to alternative destinations, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Photo by Weyne Yew on Unsplash: Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Australia (December 2017, pre-pandemic)

The most frustrating part of the entire situation is that it could potentially have been averted or at least alleviated with good planning and clear directions. As part of their COVID-19 policy, the Australian Government insisted on hotel quarantine arrangements for incoming travellers resulting in a limited number of available spots, reserved mainly for Australian citizens and permanent residents returning from overseas. One thing Australia does not lack is space, and with sufficient will (and funds), it could certainly have built something akin to quarantine villages to allow for more incoming travel, while simultaneously keeping the domestic population safe.

The Australian Government will have to work hard if it wants to ensure that international students will wish to call Australia home in the future. This is especially true against the background of increasing (geo-)political tensions in the region, which may make some students more hesitant to study in Australia. The country’s recent trade and diplomatic disputes with China come to mind, including Australia’s decision to participate in a ‘diplomatic boycott’ of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Additionally, the debacle surrounding the AUKUS pact (concerning an agreement on Australian submarine purchases from the United States) soured relationships with other countries in the region, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Whether this will affect the decision of international students to come to Australia remains to be seen, however. Certainly though, the diversity of thought and experiences that these students can bring would be missed, alongside their importance to the educational services sector. Afterall, some students may still choose to call Australia home for the long-term.


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