Universities face uncertain recovery from COVID-19 as first group of international students return to New South Wales

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 hosted by the state government.

“I just looked forward to it. And I think the time is right, and I hope we can get ashore and start our studies,” said Ms Chowdhury, a master’s student in commerce, 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 is relieved to have managed to book the charter flight carrying 250 students from around the world.

Ms Chowdhury is eager to return to Australia to continue her education.(ABC News: Alison Xiao)

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

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

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

Sophia Dottie has has been doing her masters online from Nigeria since February, but her visa to study in person has still not been approved.

“We are still waiting and I deposited my visa in March,” Ms. Dottie said.

“We don’t know how long this thing is going to last – a lot of questions, a lot of thinking, a lot of frustration.”

A spokesperson for the federal government said the Home Office “is processing new student visa applications abroad as quickly as possible.”

a young woman looking and smiling
Ms. Dottie is still waiting for her visa to be approved.(Provided)

The resumption of universities will not only be impacted by students who cannot enter the country, but also by international students who are unwilling to return to Australia.

“The cost of living in Sydney is very high,” said Jongeun Seong, a student at the Korean University of Sydney.

“Studying at a distance doesn’t necessarily guarantee better grades, but I personally think it’s easier than compared to classes on campus. “

He said he would wait for news from friends arriving in Australia this month to assess whether he would join them.

a young man standing in front of a bridge in the front
University of Sydney student Jongeun Seong is unsure whether he is returning to Australia to study.(ABC News: Alison Xiao)

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

“Last year there was about a reduction from 60,000 to 80,000 international students as those who finished their courses kind of made the transition,” said Dr Hurley.

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

The number of new international visas granted has declined dramatically, with nearly 5,000 issued in June of this year, up from nearly 30,000 in the same month two years ago.

Dr Hurley said the number of visas for new international students was around 70 to 80% lower than pre-pandemic levels.

He said many students considering Australia have moved on to other countries with open borders.

“International students cannot enter the country, while they can enter Canada, UK and America,” he said.

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

Others in the industry disagree.

Alex Frino, deputy vice chancellor of Wollongong University, said higher education institutions will rebound very quickly.

“I think we’re going to make up a lot of ground lost next year, maybe 25 to 50 percent of the ground we’ve lost since 2019,” Frino said.

“And I hope to get back to normal by 2023.”

a man sitting watching
Mr Frino hopes the education sector will rebound.(Provided)

Mr Frino said regional universities had been hit the hardest, with Wollongong University 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 has to do with brand recognition.”

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

The pandemic has called into question universities’ over-reliance on international students, but experts say there is no real alternative.

“It is very difficult for them to diversify into certain types of income sources,” said Dr Hurley.

“All universities depend in one way or another on international students, the general feeling is that no university would be truly viable without them.”

Mr Frino said universities need international students, as does the economy in general.

“They bring a lot to the local community, inject huge amounts of culture, fill gaps in the labor market and make a huge economic contribution to [local regions]. “

a man wearing glasses looking and smiling
Dr Hurley says Canada, UK and America are popular options for international students.(Provided: Victoria University)

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