Australia is in the midst of a reputation crisis.

While many countries continue to see growing COVID-19 cases in the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, Australia has been commended for how it has carefully managed the pandemic with its uncompromising approach to outbreaks across the country.

But while we have been focused on our COVID-19 response, we have lost focus on rebuilding our international education sector – a critical part of Australia’s social fabric, education landscape and economy.

Australia is yet to provide any certainty for international students on how or when they might be able to commence their studies on-shore. The lack of information and our state by state approach is confusing for students.

Australia as a study destination is losing its attractiveness and our reputation is at risk.

IDP Connect research shows that more than half (53 per cent) of students with applications for Australian universities are growing tired of the waiting game and are considering switching destinations to commence on-campus learning sooner.

Hypothesising and exploring safe return options has been occurring since March. And while the pilot programmes are promising, they should be the first step in a united national plan. But recent comments by Prime Minister Scott Morrison show a lack of willingness to communicate a national plan to safely return students in the near future.

The industry has been continuously calling for the Australian Government to act. Compared to several of our English-speaking competitor markets, we have done far better in containing the spread but we have failed to communicate that we welcome international students. Stating international students “need to wait in line” is not the message the UK or Canadian governments are giving.

We need a national plan to safely welcome back students to our shores. And we need to communicate it now. Students are already changing their study plans for 2021 and 2022.

We should prioritise students from countries where active cases are low and their response to the pandemic has been measured and consistent. Working together, we need to develop off-shore briefings, screening processes, pre-departure and on-arrival health checks.

By arranging specific charter flights for these students, the impact on the backlog of Australian citizens attempting to get home via commercial flights would be minimal. It need not be a binary “Australians home or students in” situation. The two can co-exist.

We need a united show of support. While we understand each state has its own controls, we cannot segment our approach based on state or territory. This only negatively impacts Brand Australia. If we find ourselves in the “too hard” basket, students will go elsewhere.

We need to develop co-funded quarantine programmes – funded in part by students and their institutions – and utilise purpose-built student accommodation to deliver these. Seventy-two per cent of our students surveyed are willing to contribute to all or some of the quarantine costs. Several student accommodation providers have already offered to work closely with government and health officials to ensure this is feasible.

We need direct communication to students, detailing the laid-out plan for their safe arrival. We can’t keep students in limbo and expect them to stay loyal. If we don’t fill the information vacuum, others will and they will be targeting our students.

But importantly, in our communications we must make sure, it’s not about dollars or students numbers – the focus needs to be on our students and their experiences.

International students enrich our communities, expand our cultural understanding, bring our cities and regions to life, create and maintain jobs and make Australia a leading destination for study, work, migration and travel. They are invaluable to Australia, and help to make us a great multicultural nation.

Let’s stop contemplating options. Let’s work on a national plan. And let’s get students back on our shores safely.

James Cauchy is the Regional Director of Australasia and Japan at IDP Education



to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education