Djokovic debacle: Implications for international students

The controversy over the admission and deportation of world number one tennis star Novak Djokovic, who had not been vaccinated for COVID-19, will do nothing to reduce the bad taste left in the mouth of many international students over their treatment by Australia during the pandemic.

The closure of Australia’s borders for two years has left many Australians, both at home and abroad, questioning the value of their Australian passports. I recently met an Australian resident in Malaysia, who said to me in no uncertain terms that had she been in colder climes, she would have happily burnt her Australian passport for all the good it did her.

But spare a thought for the thousands of international students who had paid up front for two year’s face-to-face tuition plus university accommodation and were all set to start or continue a university course in the spring of 2020.

Many of these students and their families had made significant financial sacrifices, taken out commercial loans and gone to considerable effort to make the dream of studying in Australia a reality, only to see it destroyed as the shutters came down on Australian international education as the result of a politically motivated ‘Fortress Australia’.

The disquiet on Facebook, Twitter and the like was most evident from India and South Asia, where the financial sacrifices had perhaps been the greatest.

International students were angry, the universities had taken their money and they had been left with the prospect of hour upon hour of online learning, that is, if they had the internet access and bandwidth to access it at home. Even the most affluent areas are subject to frequent power cuts and internet outages.

Lack of planning

Back to Djokovic, whilst I in no way wish to enter the vaccine debate, rules are rules and the Australian government is within its rights to come to whatever decision it feels is in keeping with them, regardless of the fame and fortune of the individual involved.

The issue is, as with so much about Australian government policy during COVID, the lack of foresight and planning. The Australian Open has been in the diary for a while now. Djokovic was the defending champion and number one seed. One would have thought someone would have been tasked with liaising with him and his team ahead of time, particularly knowing the controversy surrounding his vaccination status, to avoid any ‘unpleasantness’ weeks before the event itself.

Total transparency between the Australian Border Force, national government, state government and Tennis Australia should have, in my view, been an essential part of the plan to ensure there were no issues from the outset.

But, in truth, was that ever likely to happen given the various miscommunications between national and state governments regarding the entry of international students to Australia, that has been going on for months previously?

One may have hoped that, while handling the return of hundreds of international students from multiple countries may have been complex, a single tennis player would not have been ‘too hot to handle!’

This debacle reflects terribly on Australia at a time when those within international education are doing their best to return to ‘business as usual’ after two years of Fortress Australia, AU$30 billion (US$22 billion) in lost revenue and more than 40,000 unemployed in the higher education sector as a result.

The way Djokovic’s entry into the country has been handled will put huge, unnecessary stress on any prospective international student looking to study in Australia who fears they may be deported for having made a mistake on their entry paperwork or for not being up to date on their booster vaccine.

Recent data from QS Quacquarelli Symonds would indicate that the United Kingdom has become ‘much more attractive’ and more ‘welcoming’ as a study destination during the pandemic, with most of this probably due to a decline in the attractiveness of Australia.

This is in stark contrast to data from Hobsons Solutions (acquired by QS Quacquarelli Symonds in 2017) which indicated in 2017 that Australia was the most welcoming English-speaking study destination.

The change is in no small part due to the fact that, at the start of the pandemic, the Prime Minister (PM) of Australia, Scott Morrison, advised international students to “go home” if they were unable to fund themselves, stating that it is “lovely to have visitors to Australia in good times”, but that international students would have to “make [their] way home” and “ensure that [they could] receive the supports that are available…in [their] home countries”.

A study by Oanh Thi Kim Nguyen and Varsha Devi Balakrishnan “indicated to more than 700,000 international students that, though they might call Australia home, they were viewed as unimportant and an unnecessary burden on the Australian community. The view of international students as ‘cash cows’ has been a long-standing issue in Australian international education and the PM’s statement cemented that notion in the minds of many.”

According to a study from IDP during the pandemic, 12% of the 6,000 international respondents said they were having second thoughts about studying in Australia “because they did not believe they would feel welcome as an international student, a significantly higher percentage than any other destination country”, 19% said it was due to a lack of available flights and 38% said it was due to immigration policies and travel bans. The Djokovic debacle will do little to allay their fears.

University support

This was further compounded by the experience of over 500,000 international students ‘locked up’ in Australia during the pandemic, unable to return home to family and facing considerable financial hardship and even homelessness as their ability to work during the various lockdowns dried up and they were unable to pay for food and rent.

While some financial measures were implemented by both national and state governments and some universities offered small food parcels and other emergency relief for students in immediate need, it was in most cases too little, too late.

In fact, not all state governments were as giving or as supportive of international students, nor were they all quick in terms of rolling out relief funds.

For example, despite having more than a third of Australia’s international students, New South Wales (NSW) was the only state not to announce major support initiatives at the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. While the NSW government did put in place an international student hardship package later, those students were left struggling for more than a month without any welfare support from the state.

Queensland Tourism Industry Development Minister Kate Jones said: “We need to do more as a nation to support the hundreds of thousands of international students that are stranded here in Australia because many of them can’t even get home, even if they wanted to.

“Some of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve heard are people that have already done four-and-a-half years of full-time study, achieved great marks and really enjoyed their time here in Queensland. We don’t want to send these international students back to their home country with a bad taste in their mouth.”

Unfortunately, for the majority that has been the case and the Djokovic scandal will do nothing to sweeten the experience. If anything, it will exacerbate their concerns.

When it comes to Australia, my articles in University World News illustrate that I have pivoted.

First, I was wildly optimistic regarding an Australian comeback, for instance, in this article, I said that “kangaroos can bounce fast and high”.

This optimism was drastically diminished as the wranglings between national and state governments became more pronounced and international students were disappointed time and time again, with their plans to travel cancelled, sometimes on the eve of their travel date.

The news that, in addition, some Australian universities were raising their fees a mere two weeks after borders opened on 1 December 2021 further disappointed.

None of this bodes well for an Australian rebound. “Anyone for tennis?”

Louise Nicol is the founder and director of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD, an edtech company that tracks the graduate outcomes and career progression of international students globally.