Minister has no timeline for return of foreign students

Australia’s universities have no idea when foreign students and their millions of dollars in tuition fees will start returning to their campuses and the federal government can’t help them.

Vice-chancellors are in the dark, unable to prepare their campuses, while thousands of lecturers anxiously wait to learn if they will have a job this year – or not.

The federal government has no timeline for when international students can return to Australia so the vice-chancellors “must take it week by week at this stage”, as one commented, with universities preparing for the start of the new academic year in early March.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge says that until a rollout of a COVID vaccine is available domestically, international student numbers will not return to their pre-pandemic levels.

In a radio interview, Tudge said he was open to alternative plans from the states and territories for safely bringing foreign students to Australia.

“It’s very difficult to predict. Ordinarily, we have about 185,000 students who would cross the borders and come into Australia to start at the beginning of the academic year, and about the same number again in the middle of the year,” he said.

“When we can get back to those types of numbers I don’t know. We’re really taking it week by week and month by month.”

Tudge said a big factor was the role of the coronavirus vaccine and how effective it would be: “Should it be effective, that would make a big difference and universities could begin enrolling thousands of foreign students again.”

Insufficient quarantining arrangements

If the states and territories had plans for safely bringing students to Australia, the federal government would consider them, he said.

“We’re open to looking at all options, but we’re asking the education providers to work with the state governments, come up with their plans, get the tick-off by their state chief medical officers, and then present them to us.

“That’s the process. Now, the state governments are working through those things, along with the higher education providers, but we’re not at that stage yet where we’re in the position to be able to have significant quarantining arrangements for those international students.

“I would say, though, that what gives me a bit of hope is that if the vaccine is effective and even it’s rolled out only partially in some of the major source countries, and if those students have been vaccinated, then there’s the potential for them to come into Australia without having to quarantine.”

The government would have to be sure that the vaccines worked, that the students had been vaccinated with a proper vaccine, and that they were safe to come into the country, Tudge said.

As the minister pointed out, foreign students and the fees they paid had become an AU$40 billion (US$30.6 billion) a year industry for Australian universities. It was the nation’s fourth-biggest export industry and it supported 250,000 jobs.

“If I can be slightly optimistic, we still have a lot of enrolments into our universities of students who are offshore, but now studying online. And we’ve made a lot of changes to facilitate that, as have the universities and higher education providers themselves.”

Foreign enrolments falling

Tudge said foreign student enrolments at the end of last year were only down about 5% in the public universities, whereas the more significant decline had occurred among the private higher education providers.

“They’ve had about a 30% to 40% enrolment decline. And they’re the ones that are probably hurting the most at the moment, along with some of the English language providers.

“The public universities and some of the colleges are down, but not too much. We are obviously keeping a very close eye on what the enrolments look like in this academic year.”

Universities were all looking at how to recover and do things differently in the absence of the same level of international students of the past few years, he said.

“We’re assisting with that process as well. We put an extra billion dollars in research dollars last year as well as 30,000 more places for Australian students this year, which helps their revenue as well.”

Increased domestic enrolment

Tudge said the universities now had more domestic students enrolling because of the measures the government had put in place and he was hopeful that international student numbers would remain as they were.

“I hope they do come back because they have been very good for Australia, for our economy, for our society. We want to get those numbers back and I’m going to be working with the sector to do so.

“But we’ve got to take it very carefully, guided by the health advice. Obviously, overseas Australians are keen to come back as well and they get priority over the existing quarantine arrangements. But I’m still hopeful that at some stage, we will be able to get more significant numbers of foreign students,” he said.