Australia: Australia's education sector at a crossroads to keep its place in the global market

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Zarana Patel is part of a growing number of international students abandoning Australia for other countries. (ABC News: John Gunn) © Provided by ABC Business Zarana Patel is part of a growing number of international students abandoning Australia for other countries. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Zarana Patel never thought her decision to study in Australia could turn into a seven-year struggle.

The 26-year-old came to Australia from India as an international student in 2014 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in accounting three years ago.

Ms Patel said, although she was satisfied with the education, she has been struggling to find a professional job due to her visa status and lack of work experience.

"International students are making efforts, we have gained knowledge and skills [from university] and still you are being rejected just based on you are not a permanent resident or citizen here," she told The Business.

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"Whatever I have to do to fulfil all the requirements, I have done that, but as the government is making strict rules regarding permanent residency here, I don't see any hope."

Ms Patel said she didn't feel appreciated in Australia, so she decided to pack up and move to Canada for her further study and a better future.

A survey by IDP Connect shows a growing number of international students are choosing Canada, the UK and the US over Australia to study.

Australia's global share of demand has dropped from 17 per cent to 12 per cent over the past two years.

In the Indian market, the demand has plummeted from 20 per cent to 9 per cent during the same period.

Among 3,650 respondents from 55 countries, 39 per cent of the students chose Canada as the top destination, followed by the USA and UK (both on 17 per cent) and Australia on 16 per cent.

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The study also found migration incentive, employment opportunities and on-campus study were strong drivers in students' decision making.

Students looking for opportunities elsewhere

Like Ms Patel, many international students came to Australia not only for the quality of its education system, but also for potential migration pathways.

As the COVID-19 pandemic saw the country shut its borders, nearly 150,000 international students have been stuck overseas.

Many onshore students felt the pinch as they missed out on government subsidies while also losing their jobs, and being unable to return home.

While she was studying, Ms Patel had to work across different jobs in Western Sydney to make a living while paying for tuition fees and the high costs of applying for permanent residency, including English exams that cost her a total of $8,000.

"There are people I know who have been struggling for 10 to 15 years; I have been just here for seven years, and I'm fed up, like no, this is not the place for me, I'd better move to the next opportunity," she said.

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"The education system is really good in both Australia and Canada. But the thing is, after study the opportunities are really fewer, I would say, in Australia than Canada."

She said many of her cohort have changed their minds and are heading to countries with open borders, face-to-face classes and less restrictive immigration policies.

This year, international student numbers have dropped by 17 per cent, according to the latest data from the Department of Education.

Uncertainty over Australia's global position

It's a worrying trend for education agent Vaibhav Patel.

He runs an education agency in Sydney, recruiting international students, especially from South Asia.

His business relies on international students, and it has dropped 80 per cent in overseas recruitment since COVID struck.

"I believe that there was a time, before pandemic, when Australia was one of the top countries for sourcing international students, now that choice is changing," he told the ABC.

"The biggest fear is that if [international] students start liking going to those countries, if Australia loses its position in the education market."

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The peak body for the tertiary education sector, Universities Australia, believes that Australia hasn't lost its appeal, but argues it must act quickly in the coming months to maintain its market position.

"I think it would be a mistake to say, in any sense, there's been an exodus from Australia, because international students have stuck really well," CEO Catriona Jackson told the ABC.

"Other countries have responded very intelligently, they've loosened up some of their work rights criteria, their borders have been open.

"If we don't keep up, if we don't get students back at scale by first semester next year, it is really hard for us to maintain our position."

The first batch to return after a long wait

Mr Patel said it's understandable why some students chose to leave or changed course.

"It's super frustrating, because you can't really give your client clear advice on what's going to happen because the policies keep changing according to the outbreaks in the country," he said.

"It was really hard for us to convince our clients that we are doing something for you, but then there's nothing much that is in our control."

There have been calls for a travel ban exemption for international students to re-enter over the past year. Some have given up hopes of returning, others have graduated without ever setting foot on campus.

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That will change soon.

New South Wales and Victoria have promised to bring back international students through pilot programs from next month.

Up to 250 students will be allowed to arrive each fortnight in NSW, starting from December 6, and 120 students each week in Victoria from later that month.

Both states will not require international students to quarantine if they are fully vaccinated with a TGA-recognised vaccine.

A spokesperson from the South Australian government told the ABC that the state would welcome international students back once it reached its 90 per cent fully vaccinated target.

"We continue to work with the federal government to find ways for international students to return to South Australia as quickly and safely as possible," the spokesperson said.

Regional universities hit the hardest

Revenue from international education has been an important part of tertiary education system for more than three decades.

For some universities, two-thirds of their revenue is generated from international students.

Universities Australia said the sector was set to announce a $2 billion loss in revenue this year, higher than last year's figure of $1.8 billion.

While some metropolitan universities have been stable in their international enrolments, regional universities have been hit the hardest.

"In 2019, international fee income from international students was in the order of $170 million; we expect this year to barely make $80 million," University of Wollongong deputy vice-chancellor Alex Frino told the ABC.

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"We've been hit extremely hard by the pandemic and the closure of borders.

"Our story is very similar to most other regional universities who have probably lost about 40 to 50 per cent of their international students."

In stark contrast, international student enrolments at Group of Eight (Go8) institutions, including the University of Queensland and the University of Western Australia, only fell by around 1 per cent.

Mr Frino said tuition fee discounts and brand familiarity are the contributing factors.

"We always do really well by recruiting face-to-face and having people in the field recruiting and the Go8 don't need to do that, or haven't done that historically," he said.

"The fact that our recruitment teams haven't been able to access offshore markets during the pandemic has been a significant factor and, again, that's quite similar to other regional universities."

A glimmer of hope for 2022

As Australia's international borders start reopening, universities and education agents say they are optimistic for the 2022 academic year, and eager to get back into the field recruiting again.

"My plane tickets are booked and I'm going to engage very heavily as quickly as I can," Mr Frino said.

"[International students] create global connectivity for our [local] students that's vital to their future careers, and they also add a lot to the local economy."

With a high vaccination rate and currently controlled COVID situation, some students have been able to enjoy a sense of normalcy on campus for a while.

"I have all the classes face to face, and of course I can choose to go online," Hong Kong international student Po Yan Wang, who arrived in the Northern Territory late last year through the first charted flight, told the ABC.

"I enjoy networking and also I get the chance to participate in the events that are organised by the university.

"It's a safe place to study."

That does provide a glimmer of hope for many students to come.

Watch the story on The Business at 8:45pm AEDT on ABC News Channel, or stream on ABC iview.

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