Australia/September 30, 2021/By Sumeyya Ilanbey and Madeleine Heffernan/Source: https://www.theage.com.au/
Victoria’s international education industry is demanding urgent action on the return of overseas students, with principals warning schools may suffer permanent harm and some in the higher education sector growing increasingly frustrated with the state government’s lack of a plan.
In a letter to the state and federal governments, obtained by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, dozens of principals from some of the state’s most expensive schools warn Victoria’s once-thriving international student market will “fall off a cliff” if foreign students are unable to start school next year.
“Without urgent action to develop a streamlined, workable plan for the return of school-aged international students to Victorian and Australian classrooms, the school sector may never fully recover,” the letter says.
Fears are now growing that without a plan to bring back international students, Victoria will not only lose them to other countries but also to other Australian states and territories, deepening the biggest crisis universities have faced in decades.
International education has been Victoria’s largest services export industry for more than a decade. In 2019, the state hosted one-third of Australia’s total onshore tertiary enrolments, generating a record high $13.7 billion in revenue. In 2018, the sector supported almost 80,000 jobs.
Before the pandemic, Victoria had more international school students than any other state or territory, with more than 9500 enrolled in 2018, primarily from China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Almost two-thirds attended government schools.
The loss of hundreds of thousands of international students under Australia’s strict border closures has cost the economy $18 billion, according to an analysis conducted for the Sunday Age. Universities slashed more than 17,000 jobs nationally following the slump in revenue from international students.
The 32 signatories to the principals’ letter, including the heads of Melbourne Grammar, Melbourne Girls Grammar, Methodist Ladies College, Brighton Grammar and Geelong College, say they are “frustrated that despite our repeated, good-faith attempts to bring school sector-specific issues to the attention of the Victorian and Australian governments, no real progress has been made”.
The letter comes more than a year after principals warned schools faced “immediate existential challenges” due to the inability of international students to enter Australia during the pandemic.
“Please engage with us in developing and executing plans which will allow vaccinated international school students to return to Victoria in significant numbers during the 2022 school year,” the letter states.
Their frustration is shared by some in the higher education sector, with well-placed industry sources telling The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that state Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton – who will sign off any plans for the return of students – has repeatedly turned down invitations to attend meetings with university vice-chancellors to work on plans for the safe return of overseas students.
Deakin University vice-chancellor Iain Martin said he hoped a pilot program would be up and running for the start of next year but he did not expect large numbers until mid-2022.
“In terms of anything at scale, we’re working on the basis of the middle of the year just because there’s so much that’s going to need to be done to get to that point.”
An education industry source who is not authorised to speak publicly confirmed that only Professor Sutton’s deputies have attended meetings.
“When plans are being finalised, the public health aspects need the Chief Health Officer’s sign-off, and that’s why the vice-chancellors want to impress upon him the urgency and try to work with the government on how students can be returned,” they said.
“While borders are closed, there’s a broad understanding that any plan to bring back international education can’t happen at scale.
“What’s causing frustration in the sector is that in the absence of a finalised plan, we’re not in a position to hit the ground running when restrictions are lifted.”
A Victorian government spokesman said it was close to finalising a student arrivals plan, which will be presented to the federal government for approval to “provide for the staged and safe return of international students”.
“We have consulted with the international education sector widely and consistently, and continue to do so,” he said.
Jobs, Innovation and Trade Minister Martin Pakula met with the University of Melbourne and Monash University as recently as last Thursday.
The need for a plan has become even more pressing in recent days after NSW announced a pilot program to welcome 500 international students in December and restart the sector that has been on ice for about 18 months. South Australia’s plans were approved earlier this year.
International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said Victoria had already lost overseas students to Canada and Britain, and would lose “massive market share” to NSW and South Australia if a plan was not finalised soon.
“Other states are being politically brave enough to support meaningful industry recovery plans,” he said. “Given that international education is Victoria’s largest industry, we are overdue for some leadership from the top.”
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge– who earlier this year told vice-chancellors to diversify their revenue streams by doing more to commercialise research, broaden the countries from which they source international students and focus more on domestic students – said his government “would certainly like to see” international students return to Victoria.
“We have been explicit in our requirements that any state government plan must be approved by their Chief Health Officer and must include quarantine beds above those reserved for returning Australians,” he said.
“We have yet to see a plan from Victoria which meets these requirements.”
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Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.