The Potential Return of International Students to Australian Universities 

International students may be the first category of temporary visa holders to enter Australia as our country’s major universities submit new proposals to the Federal Government in efforts to secure their return. Peak university bodies such as Universities Australia are coordinating with the Australian Government to facilitate the return of international students for the beginning of the second semester commencing in July. Australia’s higher education sector has suffered immensely due to the closure of the Australian borders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic leaving many international students standard offshore despite their enrolment in an Australian course. 


The effect on Australian universities    

Australian universities have become increasingly reliant on the revenue generated from international students, a reliance which the Covid-19 pandemic has recently exposed due to the inability of almost 120,000 international students to resume their studies in Australia. The Federal Government is under increasing pressure to reopen its borders as Universities Australia has recently revealed an estimated loss of nearly $5 billion for its members in this year alone. UA contends that the reduction in revenue will hinder the ability of our universities to fund university staff, campus facilities and more significantly, its research and development, much of which Australia can attribute its international success. 
Chief executive of UA, Catriona Jackson, declares that the pandemic would have a sustained effect on our universities’ finances with an estimated loss of $16 billion by 2023 in accordance with new modelling undertaken by the organisation. Ms Jackson expressed her concern of universities losing their financial capacity to fund students seeking to provide innovative solutions to mitigate the economic damage sustained by the country as a result of the pandemic. With recent announcements declaring that Australia will now suffer its first recession in 29 years, Australia has manifested its need for international students who have consistently demonstrated their economic and academic contributions to the country through the student visa programme. In fact, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirm that international education contributed $37.6 billion to the Australian economy in the 2018-2019 financial year. The value of international education to the Australian economy cannot be understated as it is currently Australia’s third largest export with international students contributing directly to the Australian job market and internalised education. 


Universities and the Australian Government 

Universities are receiving limited industry assistance in their efforts to recoup lost revenue and UA is therefore advocating for the timely return of international students to recommence their studies for the second semester beginning in July. As students may study no more than one third of their total program online, UA are currently negotiating with the Federal Government to obtain an exemption for international students to the pandemic-induced travel ban in an attempt to revive the country’s international education sector. Such discussions include proposals from UA to introduce pre-departure Covid-19 tests for incoming international students and the strict enforcement of mandatory quarantine upon arrival into the country to remove the threat of the virus. Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has suggested that the universities fund these arrangements through a partnership approach with the government, however, this is subject to further discussion as UA continues to coordinate with the federal government to seek the gradual return of the international student cohort. 


The Return of International Students 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared a three-step recovery plan in which the government has indicated that international students may be exempt from the border restrictions from as early as July. The return of international students to Australian universities therefore depends on the government’s compliance with its ‘CovidSafe’ framework, the unveiling of which indicated an intention to provide a secure pathway for the return of our overseas students. The National Cabinet will review its progress every three weeks to ensure the success of its implementation with consideration for international students arising in stage 3 of the plan. 
Health Minister Greg Hunt has invited universities to submit proposals for the safe return of international students and announced that the government will collaborate with institutions to determine the application of this plan. The government however is yet to finalise or confirm the approval of any such intention which remains subject to the success of the CovidSafe framework. Despite Mr Morrison’s previous announcement that international students stranded in Australia without access to adequate financial support should return home, the government has expressed a genuine consideration for their exemption to the travel ban. 


Competing Interests

The government must achieve a balance between the competing interests of health and the Australian economy as Australia seeks to eradicate the presence of Covid-19 within the country. Australia is anticipating a major loss from tuition revenue generated from international students which must then be measured against the risk of a second wave of infections if proper caution is not exercised by our representatives. International education is Australia’s third largest export behind only iron ore and coal, demonstrating the ability of international students to stimulate the Australian economy and contribute to its revival during this period of almost unprecedented hardship. Serving the economic interest, may, however, undermine the objective of eradicating the Covid-19 virus from Australian soil entirely. 
The discussions between the universities and the Australian Government are yet to materialise with further announcements likely to reveal the government’s intentions for the country’s international student cohort. 

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