Australia's position in the international higher education market weakened significantly while our border was closed over the past two years. But recent demand and application data suggest our position may be strengthening since the border re-opening was announced in November. More than 43,000 international students have arrived in Australia since December 1.
The Australian share of demand from international students has recovered from a low of 16.22% in October 2021 to 19.68% in January 2022, despite rising COVID-19 case numbers driven by the Omicron variant. The real-time aggregated search data come from students researching their international study options on IDP's digital platform. It's a dataset of over 100 million site visits a year.
This improving trend is also seen in student applications data. The largest intake for Australia is usually in semester 1. There were concerns that northern hemisphere countries would gain from pandemic uncertainties this summer.
These early signs of recovery are encouraging. However, we cannot confidently predict at this point the impact of this summer's Omicron wave on enrolments. IDP survey data were showing Australia had a relatively strong reputation as a COVID-safe destination.
What will it take to sustain the recovery?
Sustained market recovery is a longer-term project. To be globally competitive, universities should focus on creating a world-class student experience. Some changes may take time to build and communicate to the market.
Strengthening skilled migration pathways for international students will also improve Australia's market position.
The recently released Australian Strategy for International Education identifies the creation of a world-class student experience as a priority. It recommends universities work to create social connections between international students, domestic students and local communities. It also recommends they improve the classroom experience.
The Australian Productivity Commission's 2020 report on its inquiry into mental health highlighted concerns for international students' mental health. A 2021 QS survey of international students suggests COVID-19 added to these concerns due to increased social isolation and difficulties in accessing mental health services.
In 2022, universities can act to improve the social integration and well-being of international students. Actions should cover COVID safety, welcoming and connecting new and returning students, and re-engaging local communities on international education. This builds a platform for longer-term change.
Omicron presents challenges for the sector as semester one enrolments are finalised. Policy uncertainty and acrimonious public debate put at risk Australia's reputation as a COVID-safe destination.
Universities can act to ensure travel pathways and campuses are COVID-safe and meet the public health challenges of Omicron. Clear and timely communication is needed to reassure prospective students and their families.
Universities are putting in place programs to welcome international students and support their social integration and well-being. The cohort of returning students requires specific attention as they reconnect to campus life. Some have been stranded outside Australia for up to two years, leaving them socially and educationally isolated.
Local communities must be considered too
During the pandemic international students have been noticeably absent from local communities. Many, including tourism and hospitality operators, will welcome them back.
But universities should not assume that welcome will be uniform. Anecdotally, some domestic students and their families are raising concerns about the impact of international education on the quality of the domestic student experience.
Universities should act on these community concerns. This will help to rebuild the brand of international education over the longer term.
In its road map to recovery, the Strategy for International Education recommends a stronger focus on domestic skills shortages. However, it is silent on issues relating to the policy settings that underpinned skilled migration for international graduates.
Students take into account opportunities for post-study work rights when deciding their destination of study. Research published in 2019 reported international graduates were ambivalent about the rights granted by temporary graduate visas. However, many still saw this visa class as a pathway to skilled migration.
As Australia emerges into the post-COVID economy, key sectors face significant skill shortages. There is a strong case for the Australian government to revisit post-study work rights. Any policy changes would need to consider local political and community concerns.
The aim should be stronger outcomes for the economy from a more competitive international higher education sector and great outcomes for local economies and communities through targeted post-study migration rights.
The latest international higher education data are encouraging. But universities and government have more work to do to ensure recovery is sustained.
The author acknowledges the contribution of Andrew Wharton of IDP Connect to this article.
Author: Ian Anderson. Palawa - Deputy Vice-Chancellor Student and University Experience, Australian National University