The Covid-ravaged university sector has welcomed the news that international students may return to Australia as early as December, as New South Wales and Victoria approve pilot programs to bring them back.
But some students stuck overseas say they are concerned about the cost of returning and worry that degrees such as medicine and engineering will be prioritised over others.
The reaction comes as research from IPD Connect, which houses the world’s largest course database, shows Australia has fallen down the ranks of preferred destinations, losing out to Canada, the UK and the US.
Related: ‘Keeps us going’: how Foodbank is helping international students survive Melbourne’s lockdown
Australia’s strict border measures had a huge impact on the sector, with international enrolments dropping by 210,000 this year, while 130,000 international students have been studying online.
Revenue from international students was the backbone of the industry, with $40bn pouring into its coffers in 2019.
This week the NSW and Victorian governments announced pilot programs to bring students back into the country. In NSW 250 students will be allowed to return every fortnight and, in Victoria, the number will be set at 120 a week at first.
This development is buoyed by this week’s approval by the Therapeutic Goods Adminstration of both the Coronavac (Sinovac) and Covishield (the Indian-made AstraZeneca) vaccines for incoming international travellers.
Quarantine will be organised differently in each state. While it will be free for students in NSW, universities in Victoria will decide who foots the $5,000 bill.
Some international students are worried they may have to fork out exorbitant amounts to return, on top of high tuition fees and living expenses.
The president of the Deakin Vietnamese International Students & Extension society, Stella Quang, said Vietnamese students had welcomed the news but were worried about costs.
“If there is compulsory quarantine, how much will it cost? And will [the requirements] be different for people who have previously had Covid, and those that have had a vaccine?”
She said students were also worried about which degrees would get priority entry.
“We’re doing the online courses and paying full fees,” Quang said. “I’m studying media and comms, all of my courses can be provided online. “I’m not on a priority list who need to get back but I’ve paid a lot for the benefit of being there, using the infrastructure and experiencing on-campus face to face.”
Every other state and territory is developing its own pilot and Universities Australia’s chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said it would be watching closely.
She said the federal government’s $1bn in extra funding for research in the 2020 budget had helped stem job losses but it wasn’t enough to keep the sector afloat.
“$1.8bn lost last year, $2bn will be lost this year,” she said. “These aren’t hits you can absorb without there being damage.”
The National Tertiary Education Union president, Dr Alison Barnes, welcomed the return of international students but was expressed concern about the sector’s reliance on them.
“The dependency on international student fees, to plug the gaps in teaching and research funding, fuelled the widespread Covid crisis in universities and saw 35,000 staff lose their jobs,” Barnes said. “We cannot simply return to that model.”
Not all unis are struggling
At Australia’s Group of Eight universities – the country’s leading research institutions – Chinese students are still enrolling in significant numbers.
Chinese enrolments were up 6.4% compared with July last year, according to federal data.
The Go8 chief executive, Vicki Thomson, said the group was concerned about losing more students to overseas competition.
“International student enrolments at Group of Eight universities particularly in the area of postgraduate research, remain strong,” she said. “There is a real risk that long-term border closures will further impact enrolments in 2022/23 as competitor markets in the US, UK and Canada offer face-to-face education and incentives.”
Research from IPD Connect has revealed that Australia’s share of the global market for international students has declined from 16.8% to 11.6% in two years.
Related: Chinese international student numbers in Australia hold steady despite pandemic and geopolitics
“Two years ago Australia took 20% of the share, it was above the US, it was on par with the UK and behind Canada,” said IDP’s client director, Andrew Wharton. “It has dropped to 9% demand.
“Canada is clearly the first choice for 39% of students, while Australia is at 16%.”
He said Australia could reverse the trend by communicating a clear plan to international students and encouraging them to study in fields experiencing a skill shortage.
“It all hangs on the border opening. But if Australia could communicate a roadmap for international students, communicate a larger scale of returns, it could be an opportunity.”