The university sector has warned the continued exclusion of international students from Australia will have a detrimental effect on the quality of the country’s workforce and diminish its standing in the region.
The warning from Universities Australia comes after the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, made it clear his state wouldn’t be able to help facilitate the arrival into Australia of almost 165,000 international students stuck overseas.
As the start of the 2021 academic year approaches, many overseas students are now giving up on the prospect of continuing their studies here, and the pathway that provides to permanently migrate to Australia.
“The value of international students to Australia isn’t just about funding for our universities or the contribution they make to the economy and jobs,” the Universities Australia acting chief executive, Anne-Marie Lansdown, told Guardian Australia.
“These students are the future corporate and political leaders of our nearest trading partners. They make an enormous contribution to Australia’s influence in the world.”
Lansdown said reopening borders to international students should only happen if public health advice supported it. But she noted many students stuck overseas are frustrated and anxious over the indefinite delay they are facing.
Andrews on Monday delivered a blunt message to international students hoping to return to Australia through Victoria.
“Even if every Aussie that wanted to come home had already made it home there’s a big capacity issue here,” he said.
“I’m not pleased about that – international education is our biggest export. But … the government is not spending hours and hours trying to make something that I think is, frankly, not possible, possible. Tens and tens of thousands of international students coming back here is going to be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, during this year.”
Last week the premier’s office suggested it could be possible for some students to return.
Recent government data shows that just 130 new and returning international students entered Australia in October 2020 down from 51,000 the previous October.
State and federal governments have come under increasing pressure to repatriate the roughly 40,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents still stranded overseas due to strict arrival caps. That means international students – many of whom had built lives and planned their futures in Australia – are a lower priority.
Earlier in the pandemic, universities scrambled to cut costs and restructure their operations to respond to the drop in high fee-paying international students that previously generated up to $10bn a year for the sector in fees and about $40bn for the Australian economy. Governments have also stepped in with a $1bn spend in the federal budget to fund research projects.
Lansdown said some universities were doing their best to assist international students to complete their courses with online tuition and a range of support programs.
However, Sai Anam, an international student who was studying in Melbourne, did not have success with online learning.
When he headed to Tullamarine airport in March 2020 to visit his parents in Hyderabad, India, the IT student had no idea his 10-day trip would last more than 300 days or that he might never see his Melbourne bedroom again.
The 27-year-old had lived in Australia since 2017 and had already spent more than $50,000 studying for a masters in information systems and associated visa costs.
He was enrolled in a 12-month postgraduate course at the Australian Computer Society when he left Australia in March. Designed to provide industry specific skills and a professional placement to IT students, the course was run in accordance with government rules for 485 temporary graduate visa holders, and provided a pathway to permanent residency.
Anam would be eligible to apply to become a permanent resident once he graduated – something he had planned to do since first arriving in Australia.
The college moved to online study at the beginning of the pandemic but later told Anam he could no longer continue studying online from outside Australia due to Department of Home Affairs rules associated with his visa.
A Department of Home Affairs spokeswoman, however, rejected that assessment and said such online study was permitted.
27-year-old IT student Sai Anam Photograph: Sai Anam
When Guardian Australia sought clarification from ACS, a spokesman denied it told Anam the government required him to be in Australia. ACS said Anam would ultimately be required to complete an in-person placement at the end of the course to graduate.
Despite pleas to the government, including for an exemption to the entry ban and accompanying evidence detailing its impact on his mental health, Anam has not been able to return to Australia.
It is now too late for Anam to come back and finish his course in person before his visa expires later this year. “I’m just shattered,” the 27-year-old said. “If they don’t give me a [visa] extension unfortunately I have to move on from Australia.”
He is now organising for friends to sell his car and pack up his belongings – resigned to the fact he likely won’t become an Australian.
“I have invested my time, my life for the past three years in Australia, and this has taken me back to square one. Is Australia going to take responsibility for this lost part of my life?”