Australian universities may see their international student cohorts return to class in large numbers by the beginning of 2022, says the education minister.
“We are looking forward to welcoming back international students who remain overseas, and we thank them for their patience to date,” Education Minister Alan Tudge said in a speech to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) on Wednesday.
Tudge noted that the vaccine rollout gave the government more confidence around the possibility of international students returning en masse by semester 1 of next year.
In the meantime, he noted individual universities are welcome to bring back small groups under the Chief Health Officer’s approval.
This comes as it has been revealed that the number of international students almost doubled over the last decade, from 400,000 in 2012 to 750,000, and contributed $37.5 billion to the Australian economy last financial year.
“This incredible growth has been good for our economy, but even before COVID hit, strains were appearing, and the continued rate of growth of on-campus enrolments was not sustainable in my view,” Tudge said. “This is particularly true for our public institutions, which have a broader mandate.”
The international border restrictions due to COVID-19 had devastating economic effects on the higher education sector. However, the impact on enrolment was not as severe as initially thought.
Enrolment numbers for universities only fell by five percent in 2020—down to numbers equal to 2018— with many international students opting to defer studies or continue through online learning.
But Tudge noted that the economic difficulties of 2020 had created an opportunity for institutions to rethink business models and explore different ways Australian education can expand in the international market.
Tudge has therefore announced the launch of consultations for the Australian International Education Strategy for 2021 to 2030, which aims to guide the recovery of the sector and set a path for long-term success.
One possibility he wants to explore is the development of education online, particularly for offshore international students.
“Australia has become the world’s third-largest provider of international education,” Tudge said.
He noted that India set a target to train 400 million people for its workforce by 2022, while Indonesia aimed to educate an additional 57 million skilled workers by 2030. Tudge pointed to these as potential opportunities for the Australian education sector.
“It is unlikely that Indian and Indonesian institutions have the capacity to educate this many in the near term,” Tudge said. “We have the opportunity for Australian institutions to meet this market with greater use of online delivery or hybrid learning models at different price offerings.”
Tudge also wants levers to ensure international student enrollment targets areas where the country is experiencing skill shortages.
“Currently, almost half of international enrolments at universities are concentrated in commerce, while fields like engineering, maths, technology and health attract significantly lower enrolment shares than the OECD average,” he said. “In the US, two-thirds of international student enrolments are in engineering, science and health.”
Tudge also hopes to attract students from countries other than China and India, which account for over 55 percent of international students in Australia.
“Not only does concentration limit the diversity of perspectives in classrooms, but it also lowers the resilience of the international education sector to changes in global demand,” he said.
Many universities and higher education institutions have welcomed Tudge’s announcement.
Group of Eight (Go8) universities said they were looking forward to collaborating with the government to develop a comprehensive plan to improve and expand their international students’ experiences.
“It is critical that the government and higher education sector work together to develop a model that maintains our competitive advantage in international education and research while ensuring Australia has the skills and expertise required to meet our national priorities,” Go8 CEO Vicki Thomson said in a statement.
Independent Higher Education Australia (IHEA) highlighted the economic importance of international students to the country said “appropriate consultation” was essential to “get it right.”
“The Australian economy needs the industry to resume operations as soon as possible, and IHEA is working closely with the government to achieve this,” IHEA CEO Simon Finn said. “IHEA looks forward to participating in the Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 consultation process over the coming months.”