Angela Lehmann, a researcher with international education consultancy firm Lygon Group, has surveyed overseas students about Australian universities.
She said that for Indian students in particular, an onshore education is valued for the opportunities it brings.
“[Indian students] are actively looking at countries where borders are open, so we are right now losing huge amounts of students to the UK and Canada,” Ms Lehmann said. “That’s pure and simply because borders are open, and they want to get out and they want face-to-face learning.”
Indian Students’ Association of Victoria general secretary Amo Chakravarthy said a qualification from an Australian university was much less attractive to many Indian students if they could not live and work here while studying.
The crucial experience of living in Australia, gaining an understanding of Australian society and making contacts, could not be replicated online, he said.
“There is a big difference between studying online and having a few years here to set themselves up before they enter the workforce, as opposed to having absolutely no idea what the country is like but then be expected to get a job.”
Canada announced this week that it would open borders to fully vaccinated international students in July.
Ms Lehmann said the resilience of Chinese enrolment figures was good news for Victorian universities, but she predicted those figures would also fall this year.
“What we are seeing is people biding their time and I don’t think those numbers are going to hold steady forever,” she said. “I think we are at the precipice and I think that we will see declines in those numbers in coming months.”
Ms Shen began a two-year master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages at the University of Melbourne in October 2020, but deferred her studies in March.
She hungers for a face-to-face university experience where she can soak up a different culture and improve her English skills to a standard she says she can’t reach studying remotely from her home city of Shenzhen.
“Experiencing the local lifestyle is the key reason why I want to study abroad, but remote learning cannot achieve this,” she said in an interview via Zoom. “If I just want to get a diploma, why not choose a university in China where the tuition is much lower?”
Ms Shen is prepared to wait it out for the rest of the year, but says she will turn her back on Australia if she cannot travel here early next year.
Former Chinese student Zhan Huang recently graduated from RMIT University and is working in IT in Melbourne, where he also runs a volunteer group called Study Local Support Local.
His group is in contact with hundreds of students and their families in China, communicating via Chinese social media sites such as Weibo and WeChat.
Mr Huang said correspondence in the chat groups had dropped off as current and prospective students grew discouraged about their prospects of travelling to Australia. “Only those who feel desperate are still checking in,” he said.
Chinese student Diana, who declined to give her surname, is in the first year of her master’s of education at University of Melbourne, and said she was also frustrated by the void of information.
“For the citizens in Australia I can really understand [the international travel ban], but I think they need to give accurate information to international students so they can plan their time,” she said.
“We are just waiting for government information.”
Diana said remote learning was an inefficient way of studying and that timely communication with teachers was difficult. She also felt she was missing out on a valuable cultural experience.
“I really want to be in Australia,” she said. “It would be really great to be in Australia to study and to explore different knowledge and different cultures. It’s really valuable for us.”
Last week South Australia was the first state whose pilot plan for the return of international students was granted Commonwealth approval.
A spokesman for the Andrews government said Victoria had submitted a draft student arrivals plan to the Commonwealth but it had not yet been approved by the Commonwealth.
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