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Double bubble, toil and trouble: the international student cauldron

The active COVID-19 situation combined with domestic and international border restrictions put the notion of a mass return of international students to public and private tertiary providers in considerable doubt and uncertainty.

Commentary on the issue of international students has varied wildly, from sheer despair to quiet optimism.

Public institutions (with some exceptions) have fared badly, with slashes to staffing and budgets evident in the media on a daily basis.

Private institutions have had varied success. Indeed, some have remained remarkably buoyant, the result of a quick and effective use of online learning, accompanied by a more realistic and sustainable business model.

Bubble one: Closed international borders

The current pool of onshore international students (many not actually wanting to go home given the circumstances and the relatively good COVID situation in Australia) will inevitably dry up. In the short term, they will likely become a most highly sought-after group that will be enticed by a range of incentives such as discounts, scholarships and all kinds of promises.

The political and ethical pressures of bringing home Australian citizens as a priority has and will curb the enthusiasm for creating international student bubbles – certainly in the short term.

The geo-political environment will also place considerable pressure of potential international students coming to Australia. My own institution currently has a large contingent from India – this will not be replenished for some time given the pandemic situation on the sub-continent.

Meanwhile, our closed international borders send an explicit message – ‘do not apply’. For countries such as China, India, Nepal and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Indonesia, this will continue to have an impact on potential enrolments.

Anecdotally, Australia still has strong drawing power – and may eventually recover to a certain degree in terms of inbound international student traffic. Field (2020)[1] suggests that given the ongoing health issues in the US and Europe, locations such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada may be ripe for a strong rebound and even possibly a significant backlog, once the situation changes.

Bubble two: Closed domestic borders

The key issue here is that given the severe restriction on Australian citizens moving across state and territory lines, the message also remains clear that both domestic and international students will find themselves restricted from transfer and/or travel in the short-term (2020–21) and possibly longer.

Even if international borders were somehow opened up quicker than expected, the notion of allowing international student access would have some solid opposition domestically. This is essentially a political ‘hot potato’.

The recent tale of New Zealand travellers coming to Sydney and then moving seamlessly to other states around Australia created a sense of outrage in many quarters. There is currently a sensitivity surrounding such matters.

This same – or perhaps heightened – sensitivity will exist for international students while domestic border closures and restrictions remain in place.

Toil and trouble: Is online a temporary safeguard or permanent saviour?

The prestigious universities in Australia have indicated that they are faring reasonably well, given the number of international students who have remained with them online.

The University of Sydney, for example, recently downsized its pending deficit forecast, based on the number of international students who have remained enrolled online. The impact of this, in the short term at least, will be a dependence on virtual teaching and learning.

A recent report from Deloitte (2020)[2] indicated that 77 per cent of postgraduate students (using a representative sample) were satisfied with the online option they have been using during COVID-19, and anticipated that a blended approach to future study post COVID-19 was likely.

My own institution found even greater support for online learning becoming the dominant method of course delivery. A survey of postgraduate students in October 2020 found that an overwhelming 92 per cent preferred to stay online rather than participate in a staged ‘hybrid’ return to campus. The Australian Financial Review (2020)[3] had similar findings.

Online and a future blended approach – certainly for postgraduate studies – thus appears highly likely. And this may not be a bad thing in reality. The shift, delivered in a relatively short period of time, has not been without a lot of toil and trouble. Yet it has seen the education sector as a whole walk back from the direst of predictions when the pandemic first took hold.

Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is currently deputy vice chancellor at Group Colleges Australia.


[1] https://www.clairefield.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Australian-education-new-post-COVID-normal.pdf
[2] https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/public-sector/articles/where-now-blended-futures.html
[3] https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/education/uni-students-prefer-online-learning-study-20201011-p563yr

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