by ANDREW BARKLA
Australia could cause permanent damage to one of its most important industries by failing to act with urgency, as many international students are already looking to Canada and other destinations.
In recent weeks, as Australia eased restrictions and active cases of COVID-19 continued to reduce in number, public discourse has shifted towards rebuilding our economy.
Yet many overlook the contribution and significance of our international education sector – or at least do not understand that there is a deadline on reviving it.
International education is our fourth-largest export industry.
It is worth more than $37 billion to our economy annually and supports 240,000 jobs.
Australia is a multicultural nation, made richer – economically and culturally – by waves of migrants over time. Each year, hundreds of thousands of smart, courageous young minds choose Australia, bringing new perspectives and cultural experiences.
This is now under serious threat.
Our research on almost 7,000 international students with current university applications for English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK) showed they are keen to continue their studies, but the majority noted they have less than a year before they will change their plans.
We asked students to rate key countries’ responses to COVID-19. While Australia fared well in their perceptions of how the virus was managed locally, we fell well behind Canada and New Zealand in how we care for the welfare of international students.
What is concerning from an Australian perspective is that if there is a failure to demonstrate we are a welcoming destination, we are at risk of diverting students to Canada or the UK. Given what a great job Australia has done in managing the health-related outcomes of COVID-19, this would be an “own goal” of the highest order.
Now more than ever, our words and actions matter. Students are tuned into domestic conversations. Nationalist rhetoric is heard by students and their parents around the world. While we commend how our nation has protected its people, we need to be careful this does not come at the cost of a hard-won – and long-held – image as a welcoming and cohesive community.
A series of practical steps and solutions are needed – including relaxing strict border controls, managed with appropriate precautions – to ensure this important sector is retained.
Firstly, students need clear facts on visas and fees. The sector needs to communicate unified messages through trusted channels and work with reputable agents in home countries. Offering conditional visas for students studying on-line and support for students on the management of visa delays, expired visas and the cost of renewing visas are priorities. Students also need a clear response on impacts of Post-Study Work Rights if studies are started online.
Secondly, pilot programs need to place student welfare at their centre. Home-stay options for quarantine that provide students with virtual mental health check-ins, virtual counselling, medical support and social connections are recommended. Australia needs to get this right, and quickly.
Thirdly, strict pre-boarding screenings and in-country medical checks need to be implemented. The broader Australian community needs to be protected. If the sector can partner with quality offshore agents and service providers, we can help ensure mandatory pre-boarding health checks and education programs are in place.
This is too important to be caught up in bureaucracy. Australia must act now, or its thriving international education sector – and its reputation as a nation – will be irreparably damaged.
Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director