Time Running Out to Welcome Back International Students: University Executive

April 9, 2021 Updated: April 9, 2021

The Australian state of Victoria will lose prospective international students to other countries if the federal government continues to delay the re-opening of its borders to overseas students, a university head fears.

Deakin University’s Vice-Chancellor Iain Martin said the state government’s inaction on welcoming students back into the state is causing them, especially those from India, to look to other countries to study.

He called for the government to accelerate plans for students to return, so the multi-billion dollar sector would not suffer further economic losses.

“I don’t want to leave this sitting for another six months without an articulated pathway because I think that will push the recovery back probably another full 12 months,” Martin told The Age.

Education Minister Alan Tudge recently forecasted the mass return of international students to begin in 2022. He also said universities were welcome to work with local governments to allow small cohorts’ earlier return.

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RMIT graduates march through the Melbourne CBD on Dec. 17, 2008, in Melbourne, Australia. (Luis Enrique Ascui/Getty images)

The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) is calling for state and federal governments to launch pilot programs that allow students to return in time for semester two this year.

“We need to see a plan, and that plan needs to be signalled, flagged, and marketed to international students before the end of June,” VCCI CEO Paul Guerra said. “Both Canada and the UK start to come online then, and if students choose to go to Canada or the UK, we’ll lose them for another 12 months.”

Education has been Victoria’s largest service export industry for over a decade. In 2019 it contributed a record-high $13.7 billion (US$9.6 billion) to the state economy and accounted for 32.3 percent of all Australian onshore enrolments.

Victorian universities are so anxious that there has been discussion to set up a quarantine system, similar to one for the Australian Open, allowing around 1000 students into the state every few weeks.

The universities are willing to pay for the quarantine expenses if it means the possibility of their students’ return.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, supported the proposition and expressed his concern for Victoria’s education sector.

Honeywood said students have been waiting to resume their studies for over 18 months but may decide to go to Canada or UK to finish their studies.

“It’s taken decades for Australia to build up a reputation as being a safe, welcoming, multicultural, world-class place to study,” he told 3AW radio. “So are we just going to walk away from that and trash [Victoria’s] biggest industry?”

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General view of signage for the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Nov. 17, 2020. (AAP Image/James Ross)

Honeywood expressed his frustration at the state government prioritising sport, allowing athletes to compete in the Australian open, over the higher education sector.

“We’re the only state that doesn’t have a state international education strategy,” he said. “I’m really upset that New South Wales (NSW) and South Australia (SA) are going to take market share of Victoria when we finally get around to doing something.”

Honeywood was referring to proposals that NSW and SA have recently announced to begin letting students return. NSW is planning to welcome back up to an estimated 10,000 students this year.

Monash University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Abid Khan said his university was working closely with the Victorian Government to support the safe return of international students.

“Monash, in collaboration with other universities, has provided detailed approaches in support of various potential secure-student-corridor models that provide students with the education, mental health, social and other pastoral care services they require throughout the lifecycle of their journey to campus,” Khan told The Epoch Times.

A spokesman from RMIT University also told The Epoch Times they were working with the state government and other universities on a “state-wide approach” to allow students to enter Victoria.

“We’ve put in place innovative alternatives to support students based overseas to actively engage with them until they can join us again in Melbourne,” the spokesman said. “Australia and Victoria remain attractive destinations for international students to pursue their studies, and we look forward to welcoming them back at the earliest opportunity.”