Universities face uncertain recovery from COVID-19 as first group of international students returns to NSW

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After a year of studying online, Bangladeshi student Nora Chowdhury will be one of the first international students to return to New South Wales.

The UNSW student will land in Sydney tomorrow as part of a pilot program organised by the state government.

“I’ve just been waiting intently. And I think the time has come now, and hopefully we can arrive onshore and start education,” Masters of Commerce student Ms Chowdhury said from her home in Hong Kong.

As one of the lucky ones unaffected by the federal government’s border changes due to COVID-19, she’s relieved she managed to book on to the charter flight carrying 250 students from around the world.

The federal government initially lifted travel bans from December 1 for 150,000 students stuck offshore.

But after the arrival of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, that date has been pushed back to at least another two weeks.

With many desperate to get to Australia, they fear they still will not be able to get in despite the borders reopening in mid-December.

Sophia Dottie has been doing her Masters online from Nigeria since February but her visa to study in person still hasn’t been approved.

“We’re still waiting and I lodged my visa in March,” Ms Dottie said.

“We don’t know how long this thing is going to go for — a lot of questions, a lot of thoughts, a lot of frustration.”

A federal government spokesperson said the Department of Home Affairs is “processing new student visa applications lodged offshore as quickly as possible.”

The recovery for universities won’t just be impacted by students who can’t get into the country but also foreign students who are undecided on whether to come back to Australia.

“The cost of living in Sydney is really expensive,” Korean University of Sydney student Jongeun Seong said.

“Studying remotely does not necessarily guarantee better grades but then I personally think it’s easier than compared to on-campus classes.”

He said he would wait to hear from friends arriving in Australia this month to assess whether he joins them.

Dr Peter Hurley, an education policy expert at Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, believes next year will be the most difficult for universities as they struggle to rebound from the COVID-19 crisis.

“Last year, there was about a reduction of 60 to 80,000 international students as those finishing their courses kind of transitioned out,” Dr Hurley said.

“Next year is going to be the most difficult for universities … it’s going to take some time for those new students to come back and to come back in sufficient numbers.”

The number of new international visas granted has dropped dramatically, with almost 5,000 issued in June this year, compared to almost 30,000 in the same month two years ago.

Dr Hurley said visa numbers for new international students were about 70 to 80 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

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He said many students considering Australia had switched to other countries with open borders.

“International students are unable to enter the country, whereas they can enter Canada, the United Kingdom and America,” he said.

“I think there will be some pent-up demand … but it’s not certain we can take advantage of that pent up demand.”

Others in the sector disagree.

Alex Frino, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong, said tertiary institutions would bounce back very quickly.

“I think that we’re going to recover a lot of ground lost next year, possibly 25 to 50 per cent of the ground, we lost since 2019,” Mr Frino said.

“And hopefully back to normal by 2023.”

Mr Frino said regional universities had been impacted the most, with the University of Wollongong losing half of its international students and half of its international income.

“Regional universities have to work a lot harder to attract students than the Group of Eight and that’s related to brand recognition.”

He said regional universities relied on in-person recruitment which had been made impossible by border closures.

The pandemic has called into question whether universities are over-reliant on international students but experts say there’s no real alternative.

“It’s very difficult for them to diversify into certain kinds of income streams,” Dr Hurley said.

“All universities rely on international students in some way, the general feeling is that no university would actually be viable without them.”

Mr Frino said universities needed international students, as did the general economy.

“They bring a lot to the local community, inject enormous amounts of culture, fill gaps in the labour market and bring an enormous amount of economic contribution to [local regions].”

By Alison Xiao (Original ABC Article)