Can technology save the international student crisis in Australia?


In 2018, Australia attracted almost 700,000 international students to its universities, making Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, the three most popular locations in the world for students from across the globe.

With more than 40% of the sector’s annual student revenue coming from international students prior to the pandemic, and based on a reduction of 30% in higher education international students who have either finished or are scheduled to finish their courses before 2021, the university sector can expect at least a $3 billion reduction in international student revenue this year compared to 2019.

When we asked our panel of experts to comment on what this means for the future of tertiary education in Australia, it wasn’t all doom and gloom despite the numbers showing a significant decline, and one that will take years to repair.

Opening boundaries

Helen Souness, CEO at RMIT Online explained how some of the solutions that were put in place, by both the government and various universities, were expedited responses based on adapting both student and educator needs in a new and evolving world. The Australian government was also very generous with allowing international students to still meet their visa requirements by switching to online learning. Souness said that it was an incredibly quick response and decision from the government to allow international students to continue studying in Australia as the borders closed and the country went into lockdown.

RMIT Online had 26,000 enrolments in 2020, which is more than 20% of the total enrolments in the university. They are delivering design courses for online experience, and they can now deliver these courses anywhere in the world. Souness said that they are selling nationally, and even internationally, which is something a traditional campus university couldn’t normally do. According to Souness, more than 50% of students in the design courses for online experience are outside Melbourne, and mostly are in other parts of Australia.

“We are answering this terrible crisis for the Australian economy,” explained Souness. “We are providing solutions, and trying to pick up the pieces. Socially, our cities and towns, especially in Melbourne, may not be as lively without those tens of thousands of wonderful students that usually visit, but luckily we can still export our high-quality education products and bring our universities back to life.”

This is such an important comment to make, because COVID-19 has opened access to courses from high-profile institutions, like RMIT Online, so that students have the opportunity to commence and continue their studies online. Learning management systems and collaboration applications are being integrated to ensure the student experience is seamless no matter where the students are located.

Economic implications

However, we do need to address the fact that a lack in international students on our shores has a much larger impact not just on tertiary institutions, but on the overall national economy. There are approximately 210,000 fewer international students in Australia than would otherwise be expected. From 29 March 2020 to 25 October 2020, there was a reduction of around 75,000 international students currently enrolled. Why? Applications for international student visas have collapsed and applications for student visas for individuals who are outside Australia are approximately 80–90% below what they were at the same time in 2019.

Chief IT Procurement Officer at CAUDIT, Steve Johnston, spoke about the financial impacts that the decline in students visiting our universities is going to have on these institutions, namely whether educators are going to get paid by domestic students alone. There are still many questions unanswered for universities when it comes to where they are financially, and where they are in terms of staffing.

The longer the travel restrictions remain in place, the greater the losses associated with the international education sector. Modelling based on the rate of decline experienced in the first six months of the pandemic suggests that, compared to October 2019, there will be an approximate 50% reduction in international students inside Australia by July 2021. If the travel restrictions remain in place until July 2022, the modelling suggests about 165,000 international students will remain inside Australia, a reduction of over 410,000 compared to October 2019.

The current international education crisis, however, is not just a university problem. Approximately 57%, or $21.4 billion, of the $37.5 billion in annual revenue associated with international education comes in the form of goods and services spent in the wider economy. The reduction in international students living in Australia will affect the many Australian jobs and businesses that rely on international education.

According to Johnston, the prediction for universities in Australia and around the world, is that they will experience this financial impact all the way through to 2024. There is a pipeline effect that happens – students who were due to commence their studies in 2020, will no longer be students in 2021, 2022 and so on. All the associated revenue that comes with international students committing to a three or four year degree is lost over the subsequent years. It will take time for universities to rebuild.

In summary

So yes, the Australian economy will suffer in many ways due to the loss of international students, but perhaps that means we need to reinvent how we approach selling our tertiary institutions to the international market. As Souness stated previously, they can now deliver their courses anywhere in the world. The online education market may not be as lucrative to the overall economy, but it does allow institutions to reach a more diverse audience across the world.

Education is now more accessible given our ability to leverage cloud-based solutions to deliver and receive content is now widely available, most with freemium options that offer a decent basic package. Technology has also democratised tertiary education – those in lower socio-economic backgrounds can access courses from the world’s leading universities without having to leave home. This is a game-changer and we should be looking at all the ways to enhance existing collaboration tools and learning management systems to provide a truly interactive and engaging student experience for everyone.

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