Claire Field calls for an international student access reality-check


It’s time for education providers to push for the plausible rather than demand the politically impossible

With fresh community outbreaks of COVID-19 over summer, new and more contagious variants emerging, and 40,000 Australians still trying to return home, it was unsurprising that in early January the NSW premier said the return of thousands of international students to NSW was unlikely to proceed as planned this semester.

This week the Victorian premier reached the same conclusion.

Combined with the growing public backlash to the Australian Open tennis players, it seems clear that the international education sector needs to move swiftly from calling for borders to open to students, to arguing forcefully (as the tourism sector now is) for specific government assistance until students return.

The dilemma is that while this might be a successful strategy for independent providers, it is less likely to work for universities (if 2020 offers any precedent). TAFE Institutes should continue to receive State/Territory government support.

The sector needs to think carefully about its communications or run the risk that when students return they face increased hostility.

In the last week we have seen a report on the Victorian coroner’s findings on the rate of suicide amongst international students. Specific factors included isolation and homesickness.

More recently a story ran headlined, “Overseas students dump Australia for Canada and COVID-ravaged Britain.” The story triggered a raft of racist comments on social media. The less inflammatory included “Good riddance to them”, “universities have lost focus on educating local students”, “Good!!”.

Our international education sector should be a source of pride to Australians. Sadly, at the moment it is not.

As the sector continues to argue for its survival and makes claims that Australia’s reputation will be damaged by keeping borders closed – it has one mechanism entirely within its control to lift its reputation – the education and support it is offering to students studying on-line.

In November TEQSA published a report showing many students (domestic and international) found the shift to on-line learning during COVID to be isolating, with reduced interactions with academics and peers.

While most Australian-based students will return to on-campus study this year – we owe it particularly to those stuck offshore to provide meaningful support and excellent online education.

Claire Field is an advisor to the tertiary education sector.