Welcome trumps welfare as agents put primacy on open doors

Survey finds Australia and other destinations are losing ground to the UK, with health management becoming ‘less of a differentiator’

December 1, 2020
Source: iStock

The UK has leapfrogged Australia and other anglophone education destinations as the most likely target of international student referrals as its open-doors approach cancels out the perceived risks from a resurgent coronavirus.

A survey of almost 300 education agents has revealed a “dramatic shift” in their views, with the UK now the front-runner in a combined scale that reflects both students’ access to campus and their post-arrival safety.

Australia is the big loser, barely rating ahead of the UK in recent efforts to keep students healthy while ranking way behind on making them welcome.

The survey, by private education company Navitas, puts Britain and Australia neck and neck in assessments of how their governments’ handling of Covid has enhanced their appeal as study destinations.

This represents a major turnaround since an earlier survey in May, when almost 80 per cent of respondents said Canberra’s handling of the crisis had boosted the nation’s attractiveness to overseas students, while just 30 per cent shared that view about Westminster.

New Zealand and Canada also lost ground to the UK on this measure, while the US remains a distant last in perceptions of safety, access and government efforts to improve its allure.

The report acknowledges that perceptions of the UK may have deteriorated since the most recent survey was conducted in September, given the new wave of Covid-19 infections since then, but author Jonathan Chew said that was debatable.

“If you very loosely categorise source countries into the sick and the healthy, the UK – with or without its second outbreak – is still an attractive proposition to places like South Asia,” Mr Chew said. “In places like China and Vietnam, [which have] the virus under control, they weren’t all that keen [on the UK] anyway.”

The report says New Zealand’s and Australia’s handling of the health crisis has become less of a “differentiator” in students’ minds. Mr Chew said the reputational benefit of a “tightly managed pandemic response” still resonated in countries such as Vietnam and China, “but not to the same extent as earlier in the year. Everyone is going to have flare-ups here and there.”

International education experts’ views about Australia’s prospects are split. Researcher Rob Lawrence believes prospective students will not readily abandon their desire to study Down Under, but others warn that they will go elsewhere unless the borders reopen quickly.

That appears unlikely, with Canberra insisting that Australian citizens must be allowed home before any large influx of international students. While a charter flight carrying 63 Charles Darwin University students landed in the Northern Territory on 30 November – marking the first Australian arrival of foreign students since March – no more are expected this year.

Mr Chew said he agreed with Mr Lawrence’s appraisal that some students remained “sticky” to Australia. He said tens of thousands of Chinese students’ decision to travel via South-east Asia, after Australia banned direct flights from China early this year, was “stickiness exemplified”.

“But it’s folly to think they’ll stick with us forever. If I graduated from school in 2019, even if I have family in Australia or all my siblings went there, at some point I’m going to re-evaluate if there’s no end in sight. As long as we keep up this fortress Australia syndrome, that stickiness will really start to wane. There’s a real risk that in 2021, other countries will eat our lunch.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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