A peak education body is lobbying the government for a dedicated hotel quarantine program for international students that would allow them to fly into the country, vowing to “pay whatever it takes” to make it happen.
It comes as new figures reveal the drastic drop-off in overseas students studying in Australia during the pandemic, and the billions of dollars this has cost the economy.
“There’s no reason why we can’t have charter flights bringing these students in, walking them across the tarmac into separate quarantine facilities that are not going to be competing with the hotel quarantine for Australian returnees,” said Phil Honeywood, the CEO of International Education Association of Australia.
“The industry is prepared to pay whatever it takes for additional Australian Defence Force and for police to ensure that it all happens properly, with only one point of entry and one point of exit.”
The latest government figures show there are currently 374,000 primary student visa holders in the country.
That’s down from a peak of 580,000 shortly before the pandemic began, and 495,000 last March.
“The Australian Bureau of Statistics came out last week and said it is actually a $9 billion hit [to the economy],” Mr Honeywood said.
“We’re down from $40 billion a year in 2019 to just on $30 billion, which includes tuition fees, accommodation costs, entertainment and all of the wonderful ways in which these young people spend money in our economy.”
In a statement to the ABC about the proposed dedicated quarantine, Education Minister Alan Tudge said the government would consider any proposals from universities.
“But it must be quarantine beds above those already in existence and must be signed off by the state’s chief medical officer,” he said.
He added that while the number of students in the country was down, university enrolments of international students had only dipped by 5 per cent, with many studying online from abroad.
Government calls for universities to adapt
In November, 63 students from overseas arrived in Darwin on a charter flight and spent two weeks in the Howard Springs quarantine facility before being allowed to attend classes in person.
But the model has not been widely adopted.
Mr Honeywood said this meant Australia was falling well behind other countries in the competitive international education market, which is Australia’s fourth largest export.
“Canada and the UK, our two biggest competitors, have kept their borders open for a whole year and are flying international students in for face-to-face teaching in the universities,” he said.
“New Zealand is now taking 1000 returnee international students. We have only taken a bare handful into Darwin last year.
“We are really destroying an industry that’s taken decades to build.”
The federal government has made it clear it is prioritising the 40,000-odd Australians still trying to return from overseas, and it is leaving it to the educational institutions to sort out their financial stress.
Last month Prime Minister Scott Morrison said universities should consider changing their business model if they had become reliant on international students.
In a speech at Melbourne University last week, Mr Tudge reiterated the call for universities to become more “resilient”.
“For more than a decade, the focus on international rankings has led to a relentless drive for international students to fund the larger research volumes that are required to drive up the rankings,” he said.
“To be clear, we want and need international students in Australia.
“But COVID presents us with an opportunity to reassess the impact our universities can have, and to refocus on the main purpose of public universities: to educate Australians and produce knowledge that contributes to our country and humanity.”
Simmering tensions with China
This week the government announced that it was extending the ban on international travel for another three months until at least June 17.
That is worrying news for Anouk Darling, the CEO of Scape, a company that operates student accommodation across Australia.
An entire industry has grown up in Australia around so-called PBSA (purpose-built student accommodation), with Scape recently putting the finishing touches on a new $100 million tower in Melbourne capable of housing 750 university students.
It includes a pool hall, cinema and rooftop area, but is currently home to just a fraction of the students it can accommodate.
“PBSA supports over 5000 jobs, but [it is] diversifying, of course, as a result of the pandemic,” Ms Darling said.
“Every business has had to rethink its business model.”
Kelly He is an international student from China and one of the few residents of the Scape building.
She said it was hardly a hive of activity.
“It’s super quiet … it’s only maybe a few people coming down to hang out and study,” she said.
Ms He is also living through a period of increased tension between China and Australia, with the Chinese government warning prospective students they could be subject to racist attacks.
At the same time, a recent survey of 112 people and organisations by the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce found more than half believed Chinese attitudes towards Australian education had deteriorated during the pandemic.
Combined, these issues threaten to deliver a long-term blow to Australia’s education sector.
For her part, Ms He said she had been subject to taunts during the pandemic, including people directing fake coughs and sneezes towards her, but said she would still recommend Chinese students come to Australia.
And Mr Honeywood said he was confident the historic ties would prove stronger than the current tension.
“The people-to-people links and the institution-to-institution links between Australia and China are very, very strong,” he said.
“We’ve had generations of Chinese students, and students from many other Asian countries, coming here, and we’re quite confident that the people-to-people relationships will prevail in the absence of any directive from any government.”