Almost every state has written off plans for international students to return to Australia. Where does that leave the $38 billion university sector?

  • Newly-released parliamentary research recorded a 66% spike in international student enrolments over the past decade, throwing into sharp relief the dire consequences of missing international students in 2021.
  • The Victorian government has said it won’t accept its university’s proposal to pay for quarantine for returning international students, and plans in other states have also stalled.
  • “I think the worst-case scenario is what we are now facing,” Victoria University researcher Dr Peter Hurley told The Saturday Paper.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Ever since the pandemic gutted higher education last year, the country’s university sector has held out hope that at least some students would return in 2021.

With borders looking to stay shut well past the federal government’s original October deadline to have the country fully vaccinated, this is looking increasingly unlikely.

At the end of March, federal minister for Education Alan Tudge said in an address at Melbourne’s RMIT that he was “increasingly hopeful that student arrivals in larger numbers will occur by semester 1 of next year”.

“There is still the opportunity to bring students back in small, phased pilots,” Tudge said at the time, while also proposing a “rethink” of the sector’s dependence on Chinese revenue.

“This could occur if an institution works with the state or territory government and presents a plan to us for quarantining international students,” he said.

However since that speech, just one Australian university — Charles Darwin University — has successfully brought students back into the country.

The uni chartered flights for just 63 students into Australia at the end of November 2020.

Attempts by collectives and individual universities to develop programs to bring back students have also failed.

Despite being the state’s single-largest export market, the Victorian government has not moved forward with a proposal from an education taskforce including Melbourne, Monash, RMIT and Deakin that sought approval to pay for the quarantine of international students and help them return to on-campus study.

Across other states and territories, plans to return international students to classrooms have not eventuated.

In New South Wales, where Premier Gladys Berejiklian has shown strong support for the return of international students, expressions of interest for accommodation options under an alternative quarantine proposal have not transformed into an actionable program.

And while the University of South Australia’s website announced that “students…will return to on campus study early in 2021” as part of a program designed with the South Australian government, a more recent statement by a government spokesperson said it was “currently working with educational institutions and universities to examine a range of solutions that may facilitate the Covid-safe return of international students.”

Dire consequences of International student freefall

Enrolled international students are continuing to abandon their programs in Australia; in October last year, there were about 400,000 international students still in the country, but this figure has now dropped to 317,000.

Since December 2019, there has been a more than 5% decline in enrolments and a 23.2% decline in new students, according to a newly released government report.

Modelling by policy think tank the Mitchell Institute in October suggested that enrolment figures will more than halve from late 2019 to the middle of 2022 if travel restrictions continue to stay in place.

International education is a $38 billion economy in Australia, supporting about 250,000 jobs, and with students from China, in some cases, funnelling up to $500 million into individual universities.

The loss of these students also accounts for a missing $21 billion in spending on goods and services.

Now, the consequences of the sustained absence of international investment in the sector is beginning to be fully understood.

Australian Catholic University researcher Dr Omer Yezdani, writing in the Conversation, suggested that even if one in five international students does not re-enrol in courses in Australia, this would be enough to throw half of the country’s universities into “financial turmoil or budget deficit.”

Yezdani’s analysis shows that 20 institutions would be plunged into a deficit under his projected scenario, with most of these in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

These projections align with newly-released parliamentary research that reveals the extent of the university sector’s dependence on international funding.

It found that while domestic enrolments increased by 33% in the decade leading up to 2019, government funding slid to pre-2009 levels.

Furthermore, it recorded a massive 66% increase in international student enrolments over the same timeframe, with the report concluding that ongoing revenue losses from international students will have significant financial consequences.

“These changes occurred against a backdrop of little real growth in government funding in recent years, during which time universities have increasingly relied on overseas student fees as a source of revenue growth,” the report says.

Victoria University researcher Dr Peter Hurley told The Saturday Paper he predicts total enrolments will fall by 50% by the middle of next year.

“I think the worst-case scenario is what we are now facing,” Hurley said.

“We have yet to hit the bottom when it comes to international students.”