01.04.2021When will authorities get serious about international education?

Given the importance of international education to our community and economy, the general response from Australian governments to the needs of the sector and its participants has been underwhelming.

The tone was set in April 2020 when Australia’s Prime Minister suggested that international students unable to support themselves financially should make their way home. The Federal Government remains committed to ensuring Australia’s quarantine facilities are available for returning Australians only.

Challenges have unfolded at the state level as well. In September 2020, the community opposed the pilot for approximately 300 international students to be brought into South Australia. Our leaders need to be clearer with the community on how important international students are to Australia, and not just to the universities.

Ongoing challenges with Victoria’s hotel quarantine system since the beginning of the pandemic has also left our state playing catch up. The Victorian Government will ask national cabinet to allow a small proportion of international students into Victoria from 15 April, which we welcome as a good, first start.

It is difficult to identify a co-ordinated political response to finding a safe way for international students to return to Australia in the foreseeable future. The community needs to see collective support from our leaders for international students and understand the positive contributions they deliver for our society.

International students matter for Australia. They bring a vibrancy to our cities and regions, helping ensure there is an energy and excitement that makes these places highly liveable and attractive for businesses.

Deep and long-lasting global ties are developed thanks to international students. Relationships forged in business, society and government help ensure Australia remains globally connected and influential.

Australia is a world-leading international education destination, which enjoys an excellent global reputation. The International education sector was Australia’s largest service-based export pre-pandemic. It contributed $37.6 billion to the national economy and supported more than 240,000 jobs nationally in 2018-2019.[i]

Mirroring the national economy, international education was Victoria’s largest service export industry – it generated $13.7 billion in export revenue and supported 79,000 full time local jobs in 2018-2019.[ii]

Melbourne is a world-leading international student destination. Ranking third in the 2019 QS Student Cities Index,[iii] the city’s high-quality education, research and training sector has been a magnet for students and researchers from around the world.

While higher education providers receive tuition fees, financial benefits flow to other sectors. In normal times, international students pay rent, watch movies, eat, drink and ride public transport. They also encourage family and friends to visit.

Despite our sound reputation, Australia cannot rest on its laurels. The international education sector is extremely competitive, with competitor countries sending strong signals to international students that they are welcome and remain a priority.

Canada, New Zealand and the UK made their wage subsidy scheme available to international students. JobKeeper was not made available to the cohort of students in Australia.

Enrolments in British universities from non-EU international students rose nine percent in 2020, despite coronavirus.[iv]

With a suite of world-class tertiary institutions and a Biden Administration that will increase support to international students, the US offering will be attractive for foreign students weighing up their options.

Working alongside the Federal Government, the Victorian Government could consider a three-step approach to enable the timely return of international students to Victoria.

Step one could entail establishing a robust, dedicated quarantine system, including consideration of a specific hotel quarantine facility. We are aware the government is considering this policy. The proposal to establish this facility somewhere like Avalon Airport has merit.

Step two could include educating the community on the importance of Victoria’s international education sector. This education program could highlight the contribution international students make to our community, the need to encourage inclusion and to provide a safe, welcoming environment.

Step three would involve welcoming international students back to Victoria and working with relevant industry bodies to provide an experience which is even better than that experienced by students before the pandemic.

Part of this experience could include the Melbourne International Student Week (MISW); a project being prepared by a Committee for Melbourne Future Focus Group.

The MISW will allow international students to gain a greater understanding of what Melbourne and Victoria has to offer and to meet with the local community. It will also provide industry players the opportunity to re-build and defend Melbourne’s reputation for an outstanding international student experience.

Engaging multiple stakeholders in initiatives like this can demonstrate the commitment we have as a city to international students, including their wider societal inclusion and wellbeing.

The relative success Australia has had in mitigating the spread of coronavirus provides the country with an opportunity to attract a greater share of international students. More than ever, decisive, meaningful and unified action from authorities that prioritises the international education sector and encourages the return of international students, is required.

[i] Tehan, D. (Minister for Education, Commonwealth) 2019, International education makes significant contribution, media release, Minister’s Media Centre, Canberra, 22 November, viewed 29 March 2021,

https://ministers.dese.gov.au/tehan/international-education-makes-significant-economic-contribution

[ii] Victoria State Government, Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, revised 9 June 2020, https://djpr.vic.gov.au/priority-industries-sectors/international-education, viewed 25 March 2021.

[iii] QS Top Universities, revised 2019, https://www.topuniversities.com/city-rankings/2019, viewed 25 March 2021.

[iv] J. Mittelmeier, M. A. Lim, & S. Lomer, “Why international students are choosing the UK – despite coronavirus”, The Conversation, 7 October 2020, https://theconversation.com/why-international-students-are-choosing-the-uk-despite-coronavirus-147064, viewed 24 March 2021.

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