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Home alone: A higher education experience?

One of the first impacts of a coronavirus pandemic being declared was the immediate closure of Australian international borders. Coming soon after the Lunar New Year. It came when so many of the international students planning to come to Australia in 2020 were taking their chance to visit their families and embrace their culture in their homelands.

Universities were the canaries in the mine. They saw the loss of income early. The impact of lost international student revenue from semester 1 commencers and returners, extended into the second semester, and is now shaping the budget setting and downsizing strategizing of 39 universities across the nation.

The reaction by governments, the public, businesses and impartial observers were largely that the “rivers of gold” we were floating in, could never have lasted for ever. It was about time we learnt to respond to the harsh realities of life, like everyone long before.

Within the sector, we responded by trying, largely on our own, to look out for those international students that had made it here, or never left. There are many of them, as much as 75% by some accounts. Exempt from all the emergency relief measures for our citizens, we sought to maintain education, provide advice, and in some cases feed and provide financial assistance and shelter, to people we care about deeply. We do so beyond the fact that their fees have fuelled our institutions, in the absence of appropriate public policy, for decades. But what happens next?

There is little prospect of total international students returning to our campuses, our cities or our communities, in the same numbers as before. They are much more likely to fall than rise in number.

Our focus has moved to finding ways of changing the proportions in which domestic students will now pay for their study, our survival and the sector as a whole. As the Semester 1 2021 recruitment season approaches its peak, we are hearing of near to 50% increases in domestic demand from Australian’s denied their usual options of gap years and jobs. This follows from the similar rises in domestic enrolments in the mid-year intakes. They are largely now learning remotely from our city suburbs on online courses delivered by staff from their own suburbs. Home alone is an apt description of the experience for students, and staff, right now.

Cash-strapped universities will probably take every last one of the increased domestic applicants as the year ends, skewing the proportions and balance further. The scramble at the moment is as much about early offer, guaranteed admission, and rebalancing domestic load to areas where higher student contributions allow capped government contributions to be circumvented, without troubling the minister’s new monitors of bad behaviour. The issues of quality, and the experiences of, and balance of the classes we assemble, is not a priority.

The first semester in 2021 will probably see record numbers of even lower ATAR domestic students. What will this mean for the learning experience, for campuses, cities, economies and communities, and for our long-term development as a nation? Where will they find placements and meaningful industry learning experiences? They will have fewer part-time jobs to provide professional and life experiences to inform and support their studies. Or to make ends meet for the dwindling number of international students.

The focus in March, when the flights of new students didn’t arrive, and the financial impact started to dawn on us all, was that international students were critical to financial viability of universities. We all know now that this was a greater risk than we had ever fully prepared for. But what else is at risk with their failure to return?

The vibrancy of our higher education experience is greatly enhanced by a diversified student body. Who wouldn’t want their Australian domestic student offspring to learn alongside, and make life-long friendships with, fellow students from Norway, Singapore and Vancouver? How much more enriching, can the tutor of a business degree make the class discussion about marketing practices, when examples from multiple regions and cultures can be introduced to the conversation? And who wouldn’t prefer market day fairs and cultural programs when the Aussie Rules or Touch Footy Club lines up alongside the Japanese, African and Colombian student groups?

Who will now provide the vibrancy to our campuses? We talk about making them sticky. But will a largely home alone domestic student body provide the same level of presence on evenings and non-peak times? Without international students, how will we make all these campuses be places anyone wants to go to, and stay at, in the same way they were?

It goes further. So many of the cities, and communities, where our universities are located, were vibrant, diverse and exciting places. This was because of the young international residents, from more than 150 countries, that bring their culture, to our mix. We often quote the value to our economy of international student fees but actually our economy more broadly is critically dependent on the buying power of our global scholars in the short and long term. They graduate, often migrate permanently, and become lifelong friends and supporters. Their lives are transformed by their Australian education and they are forever grateful. They integrate their skills, enterprise and drive into our businesses. They, and their parents, buy homes here, a lot of them. It’s a major contributor to the current level of our property values, and the nature of our property mix.

We will try to rescue what we can in moving from the cosmopolitan global campus communities to our homogenous training grounds of domestic students. But we have institutional, state and national internationalisation strategies and plans for a good reason. It’s not all about the money.

The consequences of lost international students only start with the foregone fees. We have a lot more to do to address long term health, viability and sustainability of the higher education experience beyond this year’s budgets. To start, we’ve got work to do to create a domestic student experience that will be worth having. Both at home alone, and in groups.

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