The pandemic has carved $13.6 billion from Australia’s education sector as international student numbers fall

The pandemic has carved $13.6 billion from Australia’s education sector as international student numbers fall
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has seen international student numbers drop dramatically, impacting local tertiary education revenue.
  • Plans to house and quarantine returning international students above existing caps have been jeopardised by the latest local outbreaks.
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Closed international borders and limited online study options have reportedly carved $13.6 billion from Australia’s overseas education exports since 2019.

Citing the Australian Bureau of Statistics, The Australian reports the annual value of tertiary education exports, accounting for tuition, accommodation, and related travel expenses, fell from $40.3 billion over the 2019 calendar year to $26.7 billion in the 12 months to June 2021.

While Australian universities have rushed to adapt their curricula for online learning at home and abroad, the same figures show a considerable spending gap. International students have contributed some $4 billion in tuition fees for online courses offered by local tertiary education providers.

The damage of the coronavirus pandemic and border closures on Australia’s higher education sector is also reflected in the latest publicly available data from the Department of Education, Skills, and Employment.

Australia counted just under 526,000 international students in May 2021, the report states, with that figure down 17% from May 2020 — well after the international border closure initially led students to return to their home countries.

In June, five Australian universities landed in one well-regarded top 50 list of the best universities worldwide. But lingering border closures promise to diminish the sector’s international appeal.

The damage done by falling enrollments is already apparent. Victoria’s major universities in May reported losses of $100 million since the border closure. Coupled with limited government support, the sector has already recorded considerable job losses.

The federal and state governments have greenlit plans to house and quarantine returning international students above and beyond existing arrival caps, in an attempt to retain some link between the overseas market and domestic education providers.

Even so, local battles against the pandemic are impeding those plans. One pilot program, which planned to quarantine up to 160 students a month at South Australia’s Parafield Airport from August, is at risk due to the state’s border closure with New South Wales.

Assuming those pilot plans go ahead, the nation’s renewed focus on local vaccination rates suggests the border reopening is still some time away — meaning the sector can expect diminished returns for the foreseeable future.