Australian international education ‘in doldrums until 2023’

Industry operatives’ worst fears could cost universities thousands of staff and country tens of billions of dollars

February 18, 2021
Farina, Australia
Source: iStock

All Australians will “lose out” from another two years of stagnation in overseas student recruitment, a Singapore-based industry figure has warned.

International education veteran Daryl Fong said that if recruiters’ fears of an extended student lockout were justified, Australia could lose tens of billions of dollars of economic activity.

“If international students only begin to return in meaningful numbers in 2023, many more thousands of jobs will be impacted at Australian universities and colleges,” said Mr Fong, chief operating officer of education consultancy AECC Global.

“Australia is well positioned to welcome students back to the country, but state and federal governments need to work proactively with the industry.”

The warning comes after polling of hundreds of industry executives in Australia and New Zealand revealed that most did not expect recruitment to return to pre-Covid levels before 2023.

The survey was conducted during a Times Higher Education forum on international student recruitment, run in partnership with AECC, which attracted more than 300 participants. Registrants included pro vice-chancellors, university international directors and operational chiefs of private colleges and educational agencies.

Thirty-eight per cent of the survey respondents tipped 2023 as the year that student admission numbers would recover, with 29 per cent nominating 2024 and 18 per cent 2025.

Economic data released earlier this month suggest that the pandemic has already cost Australia some A$9 billion (£5 billion) in educational export income. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that the sector had earned about A$31.5 billion last year, down from A$40.4 billion in 2019.

Almost one in two survey respondents said their international commencements had halved last year, with one in seven saying new student numbers had fallen by three-quarters.

But the survey also yielded some upbeat findings. Almost one-third of respondents said they were optimistic about recruitment prospects, and two in five said the downturn in their international commencement numbers had been contained to one-quarter or less.

Consultant Claire Field speculated that the interplay of the pandemic and demographics had produced “pent-up demand” for international education from new sources. She said regions experiencing “youth bubbles” – most of Africa and parts of Central America and Asia – may now turn to Australia for education that they had planned to deliver themselves.

“Pre-pandemic, their governments were struggling with how they were going to build enough bricks-and-mortar institutions to educate all the young people they had coming through,” Ms Field told the forum. “Those governments now have less money to spend on educating their youth populations. For Australian institutions that have invested in high-quality online delivery, there are new opportunities.”

Fellow panellist Phil Honeywood said that while “competitor markets” such as the UK and Canada had an advantage over Australia, because they were admitting foreign students, their Covid-ravaged economies could struggle to provide work opportunities for the students.

Mr Honeywood, who heads the International Education Association of Australia, urged delegates to focus on “course-related employability” programmes. “In a policy sense, we really need to do our homework on the employability side of the equation.”

Jon Chew, head of strategic insights with Navitas, said some 100,000 would-be students had delayed plans to study in Australia but would not wait forever. “If Australia opens up [its borders] after September, we are effectively conceding not just an intake but also pent-up demand from students [who have] deferred,” he warned.

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