Tens of thousands of international students left Victoria last year after COVID-19 entered Australia and Prime Minister Scott Morrison told people on visitor visas it was time for them to “make your way home”.
Department of Home Affairs figures show almost 57,000 people, or more than a third of Victoria’s primary student visa holders, are now studying offshore. Nationally, almost 164,500 primary student visa holders – or 30 per cent – are studying offshore.
In addition, the number of temporary student visa holders entering Australia has fallen off a cliff. Only 230 entered the country last month, compared with 40,790 in December 2019.
Tun Xiang Foo, a third-year international student undertaking a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, left Australia in May to be with family in Malaysia.
“I hope some miracle can happen to let more offshore international students back this term,” he said.
“I used to think I’d be back for the upcoming semester 1 or some time in March, as I am getting fed up with online studies and didn’t foresee back in May that I’d be continuing online studies for so long.
“I didn’t make any new friends in online studies and it has caused me a lot of stress thinking about going through another semester of online classes.”
But Mr Andrews said this week bringing tens of thousands of international students to Victoria would be “incredibly challenging, if not impossible during this year” due to quarantine capacity constraints.
“The prospect of tens of thousands of international students coming here while we’ve still got people struggling to get home, or even if there was every Aussie that wanted to come home had already made it home, there’s a big capacity issue here,” he said.
“Our borders are closed … all of us have to adjust, do things differently.”
On Friday, Mr Tudge said there was no timeline yet for the return of international students to Australian university campuses.
He said he had asked education providers to work with states to each come up with a plan, to be approved by their respective chief medical officers, then present them to the federal government.
“That’s the process. Now, the state governments are working through those things, along with the higher education providers, but we’re still not at that stage yet where we’re in the position to be able to have significant quarantining arrangements for those international students,” he told the ABC.
ANU Professor Andrew Norton said while universities had forecast many years of substantially reduced revenue due to COVID-19 border closures, many had hoped international students would arrive back on campus later this year.
“The best-case scenario for me was always that they would get some non-trivial intake in the second half of 2021, but even that is unlikely at this point,” he said.
Victorian universities say they are focused on supporting international students who are studying on campus or in their home countries, but online-only learning cannot last forever.
La Trobe University said “there remains significant interest in studying online provided that the prospect of a physical return to campus is not delayed for too long.”
Deakin University said “while feedback from international students studying online from offshore is generally positive, the university understands that it is not the situation that students expected or what they would prefer.”
Swinburne University said it had a “number of students commence studies with Swinburne from their home countries in readiness for when they can travel to Australia”.
RMIT said it was “working closely with the Victorian government and other Victorian universities on a state-wide approach that will allow international students to enter Victoria”.
It’s understood new international student applications are down 25 per cent at RMIT, compared to the same time last year.
Monash said about a third of its international students were studying online, and most intended to continue doing so until Australia’s borders reopened to them.
Professor Norton said international education was vulnerable on two fronts: losing new enrolments, and existing students dropping out.
“If students think they’re going to turn up [in Victoria] in six months’ time they might be willing to pay the full fee, but if it’s going to be a year or 18 months then that’s probably a different situation,” he said.
“My expectation is they thought this [online study] was a temporary situation and therefore they would see it out for a while. But now that it looks like being a lot more than temporary and if it goes till the end of this year, that’s half a three-year degree.
“Why pay a premium price for a university where you can’t even arrive in the country?”
Universities Australia, representing public universities, has estimated 21,000 jobs are at risk from COVID-19 border closures.
With Michael Fowler
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Madeleine Heffernan is an education reporter for The Age.