Cash, not borders, ‘major barrier to overseas study’

With their home economies bouncing back and students keen to travel, countries face vaccination validation as next obstacle

October 31, 2021
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Financial pressures rather than closed borders have been the largest single factor preventing students from venturing abroad, a survey has found, suggesting demand may rebound when economic conditions improve in students’ homelands.

But countries such as Australia may fail to capitalise on resurgent demand unless they have open borders – and, crucially, efficient vaccine-recognition systems.

A survey of more than 7,400 prospective, current and recent international students has found that more than half changed their plans because of Covid. Of these, 32 per cent did so because of financial pressures – almost double the 14 per cent who said they had altered tack because of closed borders.

A further 11 per cent said they had changed their minds because they did not want to study online, while others blamed lack of scholarships or migration opportunities.

But most of the respondents, who came from almost 150 countries – primarily in south Asia, along with the Philippines, Nigeria and Indonesia – were keen to revive their international study aspiration, so long as it involved some time abroad.

The survey was conducted by Melbourne-based international education recruitment firm AECC Global. Chief commercial officer Jake Foster said some prospective international students may have deferred overseas study because the pandemic had scuttled opportunities to find work to support themselves in their intended host countries.

Others may have lacked the resources to travel after Covid shattered their local economies – particularly in countries like the Philippines and Nepal, where commercial activity stalled amid harsh lockdowns. Mr Foster said that with their economies now rallying, locals could resurrect their study abroad dreams.

But the survey pinpointed an obstacle that could deprive countries such as Australia of students from places like Nepal – its third biggest market for foreign higher education students, with thousands stranded at home.

Fifty-four per cent of Nepali respondents said they had been inoculated with vaccines made by Sinopharm, which Australia does not recognise. Fifty-eight per cent of respondents from Sri Lanka, Australia’s seventh biggest foreign source of higher education students, had also received Sinopharm jabs.

Most respondents from the Philippines, now Australia’s 14th biggest market for overseas university students, said they had been immunised with vaccines recognised in Australia. But they may have trouble proving it, with the Philippines – like Nepal – understood to be providing only paper-based vaccination certificates to its inoculated citizens.

These vaccination cards are managed at the regional level and vary depending on the issuing province. Sinopharm vaccines are also known by two different names – adding to the confusion for immigration officials in countries like Australia, which is still developing an automated vaccine passport entry system.

Mr Foster said confusion around immunisation status risked impeding students’ return. “There are certainly concerns for students with unrecognised vaccines, and lots of questions about the vaccine recognition process and what they actually require.”

He said Australia should consider giving students free doses of recognised vaccines on arrival – a service some UK and US universities are already offering students from Indonesia and Nepal, according to AECC field staff.

“We would love to see countries engaging in vaccine diplomacy once they have hit their immunisation targets,” Mr Foster said. “There are 7 million doses of AstraZeneca sitting in Australia, potentially going to waste. We could be supporting students to come back to Australia by vaccinating them on arrival.”

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