“We had all said 2020 was going to be our best year yet. We didn’t see that coming, did we?” jokes Janine Bowmaker, President of Study Cairns, a study consortium set up to promote international education in the northern Queensland city.
“We had just created a new strategy and were exceptionally excited about the markets that we were moving into. “Numbers were definitely on the [upward] trajectory.”
In six years of covering Australian international education, firstly in 2015’s “Australia’s new wave” (The PIE Review #7) and again with “Australia’s rip tides” (The PIE Review #19) in 2018, the country’s sector moved from navigating troubled waters, to buoyant optimism, to nuanced readjustments, all while riding a swell of unprecedented growth in both value and student numbers, backed by the then newly created National Strategy for International Education 2025.
By the end of 2019, the country had once again broken its own records for the fifth consecutive year, reaching almost 760,000 international students. The pandemic put a stop to that growth and pivoted the focus of strategic planning from value adding readjustments to recovery and rebuilding across the board.
Now, a decade after its low point, Australia’s international education finds itself again swimming against the tide.
It’s coming round again?
Within some leadership circles, it’s become accepted, albeit begrudgingly, that a country’s international education sector operates within a roughly ten-year cycle as governments rejig national priorities.
This policy “pendulum”, which opens and restricts international education, is seen as a consistent part of education and immigration strategy to address areas such as unintended loopholes, funding concerns, or skills shortages.
The aim, according to those who lobby for policy change, is to ensure the pendulum never swings too far in one direction. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, however, it did just that, when Australia tightened study visa conditions in response to exploitation of migration links to vocational education, strangling the flow of students.
Helped along by concurrent safety concerns and a historically strong Australian dollar, international student numbers plummeted 20 percent overall between 2009- 2012, according to figures from those losses took the better part of half a decade.
2020 and 2021 are different.
“All the reasons that make Australia a fantastic place to study are exactly the same,” says Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of higher education peak body Universities Australia.
“We just happen to be in a situation at the moment in which people physically can’t get into the country.”
After half a decade of growth, the closure of Australia’s international borders in March 2020 caused total numbers to dip, losing nine percent to end the year with 686,000 international students.
Half year figures for 2021 from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE), meanwhile, provide a much starker picture of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and border closures.
Between the year to June period in 2020 and 2021, international student numbers dropped 17 percent; from 637,000 to 530,000.
Enrolment figures, which are higher as many students undertake additional courses in a year such as a language or academic bridging programme prior to tertiary study, show a similar drop and highlight which sectors are most affected.
Of the 127,00 fewer enrolments, 45,000 were in higher education. The worst affected, English language providers, shrank by 52,000.
The losses so far this year have wiped out almost four years of growth and brought numbers back to just above 2017 levels.
Funding and research
Jackson says the drop in international students contributed to the universities sector losing AU$1.8 billion (US$1.3 billion) in 2020.
“We predict a further two billion (US$1.5 billion) will be lost this year again because international students who really want to come to Australia just can’t get here,” she says.
“[These] are numbers that no sector can absorb without some damage.”
Jackson tells QS-GEN, universities and other education providers quickly understood the potential consequences of COVID-19 and worked to limit their losses by reducing spending where they could, but adds it’s not a sustainable practice.
“The complexity for us as a sector is: you can only really do that once,” she warns.
“You can’t stop essential expenditure for too long.”
The revenue shortfalls compound ongoing issues around research funding. For many years, Australian universities used international student revenue to cross-subsidise research funding gaps, as well as teaching and operational costs. A funding freeze on domestic places in 2017, had already exacerbated the issue.
To combat losses, the Australian government provided an additional $1 billion in research money in October 2020, but that only serves to soften the blow, says Jackson, noting actual losses prior to the funding injection were $2.8 billion.
“It was very useful; it saved research capacity and it saved jobs,” she says.
“But it was a sustainability measure, it wasn’t a change the formula or change the regime measure. We’re still in considerable difficulty.”
Jobs and growth
At other levels of education, the economic consequences of COVID-19 have been just as swift.
After 2016’s watershed Value of international education to Australia report, commissioned by the federal government and compiled by Deloitte Access Economics, Australia developed a sophisticated model to measure the economic impact of the sector.
Factoring in previously ignored revenue, such as tourism by visiting family and friends, the report prompted changes by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). With additional revenue sources taken into consideration, the sector was valued beyond $40 billion in 2019.
This value cannot be overstated for the country. International education, at the time, was Australia’s fourth largest export, and the single largest services export overall, far surpassing tourism.
Meanwhile, figures from DESE estimated the sector supported 240,000 jobs. As with export value figures, many of those jobs were found outside institutions, such as the tourism providers servicing students’ family and friends.
By the end of 2020, the sector had lost almost a quarter of its value. This worsened again, according to the latest figures from ABS, down to $26.7 billion for the 2020/21 financial year, and is predicted to fall further, to half of 2019 levels by the end of this year.
In terms of jobs, however, things are much less clear. There is an understanding that for every three to four international students, one job is supported. Currently, the calculation isn’t as cut-and-dry.
“We’ve probably seen more resilience in the sector than anticipated 18 months ago,” says Brett Blacker, Chief Executive of English Australia, on the employment front.
According to Blacker, the federal government’s JobKeeper programme, announced in March 2020 to help businesses retain employees, was “predominantly the reason we didn’t see a fast cliff” in job losses.
Still, he says, many providers in the language sector and elsewhere closed their doors, while others restructured and downsized their overheads.
The peak body’s ongoing survey of members for the first quarter of this year found 22 percent of English language employees lost their job, primarily seasonal workers, followed by part-time and full-time staff.
“The loss of really experienced and long-standing teachers is probably one of the primary risks that we face,” Blacker explains.
“There are employment opportunities in other sectors that many of the teachers are accessing. Getting them back is a future risk.”
Meanwhile, public universities, which were contentiously left out of the JobKeeper programme, shed more than 17,000 jobs in 2020.
“Unfortunately, it is probable we will see further reductions this year,” says Jackson.
“The loss of any, and every, one of those staff is personally devastating, bad for the university community, and Australia’s knowledge reservoir.”
Outside the education sector, how the drop in international students affects jobs is also unclear, however, Bowmaker says the impact on Cairns, which traditionally attracts larger numbers of short-term students, has been dramatic.
“We didn’t have those students that live here for several months to several years spending money,” she says.
“You would not recognise the city walking through it because of the amount of shops that have closed down.”
Store closures, however, are just one concern for the Australian labour force, says Bowmaker.
In late 2019, the Australian government put into place new post-study work incentives to encourage international students to study outside the major three cities, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, with the goal of alleviating population pressures and boosting regional hubs.
Post-study work rights (PSWR), available to Bachelor’s degree graduates or higher, were introduced in 2013 with multiple aims, including attracting more international students, to later benefit from their skills and talents. It was one of the primary factors in Australia’s big gains from 2015 onwards.
Key to the 2019 changes were bonus years of work, up to two depending on location, for those who studied and lived in Australia’s regions. Bowmaker says the policy adjustment had been working. Now, however, not only are students unable to enter the country to access those work rights, but the workforce is losing access to high-quality graduates.
“Our students [were] taking up positions in Cairns in [areas such as] health, medicine, and engineering,” she says.
“We’re seeing that impact everywhere.”
Lost and running
While there are key policy differences from ten years earlier, there are stark similarities between how the decade began and how it ended.
2011 saw Queensland make global headlines when capital city, Brisbane, experienced extreme flooding for the first time in almost 40 years. In 2019, the whole of Australia made the front pages worldwide as bushfires raged throughout the end of the year and into 2020.
The bushfires led to the development of the Global Reputation Taskforce in January 2020 to minimise negative perceptions of Australia as a study destination, says Phil Honeywood, Chief Executive of the International Education Association of Australia.
By February, the taskforce, which came in addition to the Council for International Education, a group comprising both ministers and industry experts set up as part of 2016’s National Strategy, quickly shifted focus towards maintaining the country’s reputation in the face of the pandemic.
“We had 18 meetings and it seemed to work really well. We had edtech, accommodation providers, education agents all represented,” Honeywood explains.
Eventually wrapping up in August 2020, Honeywood says the legacy on the taskforce he chaired continues now, with a new group of stakeholders established this year to meet regularly and discuss strategy and opportunities.
Membership is also much broader than both the Reputation Taskforce and Council, he says, bringing in state government representatives, and linking with industry partners, such as airliner Qantas.
Honeywood, however, concedes the past 18 months has seen Australia’s reputation falter.
Student welfare and service provision in 2020, according to Belle Lim, President of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), did not meet expectations. While several states and city councils provided a number of support programmes, such as accommodation vouchers and food banks, a national response was not rolled out.
Lim tells QS-GEN her organisation, which serves as the voice of international students, received messages from many who said they were struggling mentally and financially. The messaging to those outside of Australia, she adds, left many students in the dark.
“We are very disappointed and upset about the messages or the lack of messaging that went to offshore students,” Lim says.
“These students have invested so much, not just financially, but emotionally for their education here in Australia. Not having those compassionate responses to these students is absolutely unthinkable, unimaginable.”
Matters worsened in April 2020, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison effectively told students to leave.
“If they’re not in a position to be able to support themselves, then there is alternative for them to return to their home countries,” he said.
Honeywood notes several ministers later attempted to clarify the PM’s comments, arguing he was taken out of context.
Some of the more harshly perceived comments by Morrison, particularly the line “it is time, as it has been now for some while… to make your way home”, were also conflated with his remarks towards students, and paraphrased as “it’s time to leave”. By that part of his press conference, he was referring to tourists on visitor visas.
Still, regardless of the intention, Honeywood says the comments have had to be overcome.
“That… really sent all the wrong messages about Australia as a safe, welcoming, supportive study destination country,” he says.
Lim, more succinctly puts it: “When you talk to students, they still remember.”
Last plane out of Singapore
The barriers created by border closures have required education providers and state governments to think creatively in facilitating the safe return of international students. Even in late July, plans were well underway in both South Australia and New South Wales to launch pilot programmes.
New lockdowns in both states, and elsewhere, put those plans on hold indefinitely.
The amount of work required across multiple stakeholders and against the backdrop of sudden infection spikes, has meant since closing international borders, only one plan has borne fruit: 63 students through a pilot programme by Charles Darwin University (CDU) in the Northern Territory, the culmination of months of work, chartering a flight from Singapore.
“We have been working closely with the Northern Territory and Australian governments to ensure the health and safety of the Northern Territory community remains the highest priority,” CDU’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Global Strategy and Advancement, Andrew Everett, said at the time.
Set-backs have a broader reach beyond their location. Bowmakers says stakeholders in every state have produced proposals, but situations like the recent lockdowns in Sydney, almost 2,000 kilometres away from Cairns, dampened spirits and delayed further planning.
Subsequently, it is difficult to determine when large scale plans to bring back international students might begin, stakeholders tell QS-GEN. Minister for Education and Youth Alan Tudge, however, gave some indication of the levers required to bring back students, if not a timeline.
“Once our vaccination rate starts to get up at 70 to 80 percent… we can start to allow greater capped entry of student visa holders,” he announced at the THE Live ANZ event in early August.
English Australia’s Blacker sees planning for a vaccination rate rather than a date as a commendable option for international educators, as it provides clear markers for when certain work needs to occur.
“If you’ve got a milestone that you can reach, you can work back from that in terms of those other preparatory processes, the logistics, the budgeting, and all of the resources allocation that you need from a student and a provider perspective,” he says.
In his speech, Tudge indicated the government was hopeful this phase could occur by Christmas and backed the continuation of pilot programmes in South Australia and New South Wales when again possible.
Bowmaker, however, notes action is needed more urgently.
“If we don’t have some sort of concrete response in the next few weeks, it does mean that we won’t see international students for the first half of next year,” she says, pointing to the time required by students to apply for and receive a visa.
“The overall international education sector is thinking that we’re not going to see anything until the second half of next year as the best-case scenario, unless we get something happening very, very soon.”
As countries such as the UK, US, and Canada open up and allow in international students, Australia’s sector sees itself having to overcome an additional barrier.
“If you are a prospective student, you won’t wait for Australia,” says Lim.
Creating a new wave
“It’s the first time ever that we’re going to have a level playing field between all of the primary, sophisticated education countries,” posits Scott Jones, Chief Executive of global education provider Navitas.
“The UK and Canada have come out with really aggressive policy reforms and settings recognising education is pivotal to their economic recovery. The US has just come out and stated they’re in the process of developing something very attractive and they really want to be a leader.”
Australia has both benefited from and suffered under a push-and-pull policy effect between its main Anglophone competitors, the US, UK, New Zealand, and Canada. When, for example, Australia adopted PSWR, it came shortly after the UK scrapped theirs.
Jones tells QS-GEN the catalyst which honed global policymakers’ focus on attracting global talent through education was the pandemic.
“COVID’s reset where everything was before.”
Honeywood agrees, and adds political changes elsewhere pose a challenge.
“We’ve lost some of the advantages we had because of negative overseas government policies and personalities. Instead of that, what we have to do is really focus on what we’re so good at,” he says.
Consequently, the cycle of international education has shortened from 10 years to 6. The National Strategy, which was in its draft stage when “Australia’s new wave” was published, is already being replaced.
A draft, under the title Connected, Creative, Caring has already been tabled, says Honeywood.
“With strong emphasis on the word caring,” he adds.
Prior to the strategy’s release, Rod Jones, former Group Chief Executive and co-founder of Navitas, urged caution “that [Australia] doesn’t go over the top on [the recovery]” to prevent the pendulum swinging back too far.
“I think Rod’s statement is still valid,” notes Scott Jones, pointing to Australia’s growing skills needs and slowing population growth. The past year saw the lowest population growth in a century.
“If you get it out, you open it too much and people take advantage of that position, the government of the day… will come down on this like a tonne of bricks.”
Australia’s international education sector in 2021 finds itself in familiar waters: planning a recovery and contemplating its role in the broader national context. Using the lessons they’ve learnt in the past decade, stakeholders have the experience to ensure the sector doesn’t get pulled back out to sea again.