Despite some speed bumps, the long-awaited return of international students to the Australian university sector is close, adding to a growing sense of resilience - and optimism - in the industry.
There is hope the easing of restrictions around Australia’s borders - originally brought forward before pandemic concerns pushed the move back to at least December 15 - will see fully vaccinated students with a valid visa return to Australia’s university sector.
While the COVID-19-led uncertainty is a blow, there remains a sense of resilience in the sector, according to Emma Davine, Head of Public Sector at ANZ Institutional.
“Despite the uncertainty, generally, we feel quite optimistic about the university space,” she says. “And the universities I’ve connected with in the last few months are increasingly optimistic.”
Davine says ANZ is working closely with its customers in the space as they manage the post-pandemic new normal – even if, in some cases, they look quite different than how they did in pre-COVID times.
“There’s a positive story in how the sector has become leaner when it needed to,” she says. “Many in the sector have done a really good job at restructuring and transforming their businesses.”
Kate Russell, Associate Director, Diversified Industries at ANZ Institutional says the slowdown in activity through the pandemic has been widespread.
“CAPEX plans have either been put on hold or rationalised though the pandemic, and many faculties have seen a lot of consolidation,” she says.
Combined with the fact much of the education sector - like much of the broader economy - stocked up on cash as a safety measure at the height of the pandemic, Davine sees exciting times in the industry’s future.
“The sector, or at least some of the larger players, have probably got more liquidity than they expected,” she says. “And we expect in the next year they’ll start to spend it – in terms of investment, infrastructure and the like.”
A December reopening would be a fillip for Australian universities, according to Russell, given the local year kicks off early in 2022. This is seen as advantage over rival universities in the United Kingdom, Canada and United States, who kick off their classes midyear.
“A December reopening is good timing from an Australian perspective compared to our competitive markets,” Russell says.
The international student dollar has been the story of the pandemic for the local tertiary education sector. Australian Bureau of Statistic data out the value of the onshore international education at $A5.5 billion in the June 2021 quarter, compared to $A9.1 billion in the same period during 2019.
But according to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, close to 150,000 international student visa holders were located overseas before the border announcement was made. International student numbers were at levels not seen since 2015, according to reports.
These are clearly disruptive figures, but perhaps not “quite as bad as we thought” in the early parts of the pandemic, Davine says. But the reopening completely changes that story.
“As the border opens more generally, we’ll find a lot more people can come back,” she says. “What we're seeing is those who were already enrolled are still enrolled and there's been an increase in domestic students.”
Still, a decline in new enrolments of international students will linger as an issue, Davine says.
“The negative part of the story is because we have had the border closed, we’ll probably find a lot of students will have found alternative options offshore,” she says.
Even in cases where students have remained enrolled, university is a very different service when it is by correspondence, according to Russell - “which means they have to charge less”, she says.
“And obviously you don't get the associated benefits, that student is not getting that Australian experience, which is really key to studying at an Australian university,” she says. “That will start to flow as they're able to come back onshore, and then for universities, margins will begin to increase again, which is quite significant.”
Davine says there’s an informal expectation the sector could face another 24 to 36 months of discomfort, but says “as long as they can stop the erosion of their international enrolments, they can get back to where they were”.
“That's probably slightly more optimistic than what we were hearing even six months ago, when the planning was for a five-year recovery rather than two to three,” she says.
Underpinning that optimism is the idea “people who want to study in Australia will always come to Australia,” Davine says.
“People want to study in Sydney because they want the Sydney experience - the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and things like that,” she says. “And they’ll still want to come - it will just take them a little while for it to all come back again.”
ANZ is proud to sponsor the International Education and Training category at this year’s 59th Australian Export Awards.
The award recognises outstanding international success or learner/student experience in the field of education and training services, expertise and curriculum including vocational training.
Congratulations to all finalists and the award’s winner The Engineering Institute of Technology from Western Australia.
Beyond COVID, Russell says the long-term outlook for universities may be in how they link in closer to the industries they provide talent pathways into.
“I think universities are being engaged by government and business more generally and being a real partner,” she says.
“Across the public sector and defence, for example, universities here are working with both prime contractors and government to identify the skills gaps that currently exist and will exist, and creating courses to build that student pipeline.
“That's probably not necessarily been done before in terms of truly partnering with industry.”
Technology will play a critical part of this transition, Davine says – as it has all through the pandemic. Indeed, even as the sector enters a period of slow recovery, some things will never go back to how they were before COVID-19.
“I think the digital culture will stay, they’ve all really pivoted to that,” she says. “There'll be less emphasis on the face-to-face learning. With some courses you need to be there to learn, but the future will keep keeping on.
“Digital learning creates flexibility - it's a little bit like the working from home revolution we saw through COVID. I don't know that they’ll go back to the old model completely.”
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