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Media release: Return of International students welcome but we still have a long way to go – Group of Eight

Australia’s lucrative international education sector has taken a significant hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, plummeting to its lowest level since 2014.

Today’s ABS data on international trade for the December quarter confirm that the contribution of international education to the Australian economy has continued to fall from a pre-COVID high of $40.3 billion in 2019 to $22.5 billion in 2021 – a drop of almost 50%.

Group of Eight Chief Executive Vicki Thomson said, “while Australia’s higher education sector has worked consistently over this testing period to provide the best possible incentives and education opportunities for our international students, this outcome is not surprising given the challenges of border restrictions and ongoing uncertainty created by the pandemic.”

“Today’s ABS release signals a tough road ahead for our research-intensive universities, particularly as the cost cutting and financial measures put in place during 2020 and 2021 are not sustainable over the longer term.

“International students have faced major challenges in commencing their higher education studies over the past two years, with the latest figures (November 2021) showing a 23% drop in commencing higher education enrolments compared to the previous year.

“In the face of a depressed market, commencing student enrolments dropped by only 7% at the Go8, compared to the same time last year. This likely reflects recognition of the importance of quality education, even during difficult and uncertain times. However, it also shows that quality and reputation alone won’t be sufficient to restore numbers if we do not quickly rebuild confidence in Australia as an ongoing quality destination for international education. We must act quickly to stem this downward trend.

“Also of concern is the recent visa lodgement data released by the Department of Home Affairs that shows primary lodgements for higher education visas fell by 9% in 2021 compared to 2020, and by 42% compared to 2019 (pre-COVID).

“Australia is a quality higher education provider, and we have a lot to offer prospective students, but the new reality is that we are operating in a highly competitive space. We are competing in an environment where countries such as the US, UK and Canada are offering face to face learning and providing incentives to attract international students.

“Fostering international education and research is vital to Australia’s post COVID economic recovery, but Australia is not the only country seeking to rebuild our economy post the pandemic. Competitor countries also recognise the importance of building their skill base in key areas such as engineering, and technology related fields.

“The Go8 acknowledges that the Government has introduced effective measures such as the visa rebate scheme to address the decline, however despite this we have yet to see returning student numbers approach pre-pandemic levels where the average weekly Temporary Student Visa arrivals in January 2019 and 2020 was more than 20,000.”

Contact: Vicki Thomson, Group of Eight Chief Executive on +61 417 808 472