Disappointing Return on Investment for International Students

On a post-covid future for international students.

Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters

As Australia’s largest services export industry, the $38 billion overseas education market, greatly adds to the nation’s economic prosperity. However, amidst the current COVID-19 uncertainty, Australia has failed its international students. 

University is not simply about the degree conferred to us upon graduation; students are paying large fees for the complete ‘university and campus experience.’ Last month, The Economist presented the notion of the ‘absent student’, which explores the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on education. Schooling through video calls at the same skyrocketing price of the regular ‘university experience’ needs radical rethinking, in particular for international students who pay at least double what locals do, indeed in some cases up to $44,000 a year. 

There is a widespread misconce that international students evade Australian taxes and that in turn, they compensate for this through higher tuition fees. However, these students pay taxes on all other purchases and their income earned within Australia and this blatant inequality could result in Australia’s ‘overseas education appeal’ to drastically diminish. 

Overall, student visa applications have dropped by 33.5%, and there have been over double the deferments in 2020. As a result of this loss in revenue, Sydney University (USyd), along with other major Australian universities, has pursued austerity measures in the form of course and staff cuts. 

There is some hope associated with Australia’s first pilot program that intends to facilitate the return of stranded international students. However, Australian High Commissioner in India, Barry O’Farrell specified that this program will not cover South Asia and that “there doesn’t seem enough certainty… for Indian students just yet.” It is noteworthy that India is the second-largest source of international students after China.

The lobby group – Association of Australian Education Representatives in India (AAERI) is pushing for changes to make Australia an appealing study destination for Indian international students again in the post-COVID-19 era. AAERI’s president, Ravi Lochan, proposed that “one of the reasons why Canada and the UK have increased in popularity with students in South Asia is that the return on investment is much higher.” 

AAERI’s recommendations include reducing the international student fees by 25% to shorten the fee-gap between international and domestic students. AAERI also noted that the main appeal behind overseas education is skilled migration; the most significant ROI for international students. Since this is the case, by setting aside 25% of the migration quota for graduating students, Australia may be able to position itself better than other overseas education destinations for the post pandemic rebuild.

During a virtual-summit with Scott Morrison in June 2020, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi exclaimed, “I am especially grateful for the way you have taken care of the Indian community in Australia, and especially the Indian students in these difficult [COVID] times.” However, Modi’s words are highly misleading. 

An August 2020 study revealed otherwise. International students were surveyed at UTS, USyd and Macquarie University for stats on their living experiences once, pre-, and then again, post-COVID-19. 61% of international students faced job losses without any compensation, a third were going without food to pay for their rent, and 21% feared homelessness. Only 13% of education providers had reduced the fees, and the general feeling toward the government was that support and welfare-relief had not been strong enough. 

Increased government support and ROI is crucial for vulnerable onshore international students. Many international students are themselves essential frontline workers despite not being entitled to the JobKeeper subsidy. Deakin University’s Professor Ly Tran stresses on extending ‘Post Study Work’ for the currently enrolled onshore international students to incentivise international students to choose Australia as a study destination during this time. Further, in response to prioritising domestic jobs and economic support, Tran criticises this approach as xenophobic and states that “rather than taking away jobs,” international students actually create jobs for locals, supporting around 250,000 Australian full-time jobs.

Additionally, NSW is the only Australian state to exclude international students from the concession on public transportation fares. The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations coordinated a campaign in late July 2019 against the concession opal card discrimination towards international students; however, the campaign did not result in any successful outcomes. With international students facing increased economic precarity, extending concession cards to international students is merely one simple way that the government can materially improve students’ lives. 

Improving the ROI for international students whilst strengthening the industry’s ‘overseas education appeal’ is going to be essential for Australia’s post-COVID recovery. Although lobby groups such as AAERI are working towards salvaging the industry from the impacts of COVID-19, only time will show the outcomes of these efforts.