International education crisis will linger long after students return to Australia
A series of recent proclamations about Australia's borders reopening indicate that the crisis in our international education sector may be coming to an end.
However, there is still much work to be done. Over 145,000 international student visa holders are stranded in their home countries. It's unclear when and how these students will be able to enter Australia.
Even if they arrive in time for the start of the 2022 academic year, the "pipeline" effect will remain. Disruptions in the flow of new students over the last two years will have long-term consequences.
International students typically study for a period of two to four years. Enrollments may take some time to return to previous levels as missed, or reduced intakes work their way through the system.
Where are we now?
According to the most recent government data, the number of international student visa holders has decreased by 205,854, or 33.5 per cent, since March 2020. The fact that many international students will be studying abroad due to closed borders complicates matters.
The graph below depicts the number of international student visa holders in Australia and elsewhere for each week since March 2020.
The number of international student visa holders in Australia will be reduced to 266,000 by October 2021. Before the pandemic, 578,000 international student visa holders were living in Australia in October 2019.
This represents a 54% decrease in the number of international students living in Australia.
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What impacts is this having?
The halving of the number of international students in Australia will have far-reaching consequences for those who rely on the global education sector. Spending in the broader economy accounts for roughly 60% of the economic value of international education.
This impact can be seen in the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data. Since June 2019, the chart below shows the quarterly value of international education. It also considers the importance of online learning for students.
According to the ABS, the significance of the global education sector in the June 2021 quarter was $5.5 billion, down from $9.1 billion in the June 2019 quarter. While growth in online learning has partially offset the losses, it is insufficient to compensate for the overall decline in international student revenue.
What about the pipeline effect?
As students complete their courses and new ones begin their studies, the student body is constantly changing.
The pipeline effect – a disruption in the flow of new students taking some time to work through the pipeline – is one of the most significant challenges facing the sector.
Pathway courses, such as English language or preparatory courses, are frequently taken by international students before enrolling in a diploma or degree programme at a higher education institution.
For example, in 2020, approximately 62% of Chinese international students enrolled in higher education for the first time completed a pathway course.
This helps to explain why year-to-date enrollment of Chinese students at universities has dropped by only 8% in 2021 compared to 2019, while the number of Chinese international students with higher education visas has fallen by around 30%.
Many of the students who are now beginning higher education courses were already in the pipeline when the borders closed. They've moved on from a pathway course to a higher education course.
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If new international students enroll once borders reopen, many will have to go through this process again.
Will the influx of new international students compensate for the currently enrolled students who are completing their courses? Otherwise, total student enrollment will continue to decline.
Illustration of students on a conveyor belt being transported to university and graduating.
Why is this important anyway?
For the past 30 years, revenue from international education has been an essential source of funding for Australia's tertiary education system.
International students typically pay higher tuition than domestic students. This allows universities to supplement their income from local students.
As international students return to Australia, a case is to be made for a more tightly controlled policy environment.
International students, for example, are concentrated in specific courses and institutions. In 2020, the Group of Eight universities received more than half of the $9 billion in international student revenue collected by the university sector.
Only 4.7% of international VET students enroll at public providers in the vocational education and training sector. This means that TAFE institutions are missing out on significant revenue streams.
Domestic students at TAFEs miss out on the advantages of interacting with international students as well. Because of the complex relationship between migration and education systems, some students may cycle through low-cost courses to keep their visa status.
The international education sector is experiencing a resurgence of growth. Now is the time to think about how to manage that expansion. It must be done in a sustainable manner that protects everyone's investment in the sector, particularly the investment made by international students.