International student arrivals are down to dozens per month and it’s not just universities suffering

A government program to bring international university students back to Australia is yet to get off the ground, as businesses reliant on overseas students warn the market will take years to recover, even in the unlikely event borders reopened for next year’s semester one intake.

The Federal Education Minister has told The Business “it’s very hard to tell” when students will be able to start coming into the country.

Earlier this year, the ACT and federal governments planned a pilot program to get 350 continuing international students back to Canberra so they could recommence their studies on campus in semester two.

That was delayed after the second wave of coronavirus struck Melbourne.

In late August, a new pilot was announced in partnership with South Australia, with plans for up to 300 students to return to the state this month.

So far, none have arrived and Education Minister Dan Tehan was unable to give any assurances about when the program will start.

“Obviously there was an announcement that South Australia was keen to start on that pilot, but we’ve also made it very clear in discussions we’ve had that we’ve got to sort out those internal border issues and issues regarding returning Australians, but we’ll continue to work through the issues,” Mr Tehan said.

A spokesperson for the South Australian Government said the “final logistics were being worked through”, including which countries the students would come from.

A sticking point has been the caps the states have put on international arrivals, which have meant thousands of Australian citizens have had trouble returning home.

South Australia had a limit of 500 people per week, which was yesterday lifted by 360.

Mr Tehan said state premiers were expected to ensure no international students took the place of Australians returning from overseas.

Student arrivals drop from thousands to dozens

While figures from the Department of Home Affairs show 555,310 student-visa holders remained in Australia as of June 30, arrivals from overseas have ground to a halt.

Last July, an estimated 144,000 students arrived in time for the second semester of study, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

This July, just 40 students arrived.

With international travel largely at a halt, restricting students’ ability to return home for visits, there are also fewer departures than last year.

But the number of students leaving still far exceeds those arriving.

Student-visa holder arrivals and departures

2019 arrivals2019 departures2020 arrivals2020 departures
Jan90,26068,72091,61075,640
Feb183,90044,650121,32028,960
Mar72,15031,96060,36042,130
Apr44,50045,410309,910
May34,26039,300405,460
Jun46,040118,850607,450
Jul143,84065,2904012,130
Aug54,96039,680
Sep45,30048,430
Oct50,83039,230
Nov38,260109,430
Dec38,690142,940

Source: ABS

With COVID-19 restrictions moving many classes online, the on-campus experience has been compromised.

Mr Tehan praised the nation’s universities for being “second to none” in shifting to remote learning, adding many students who had opted to enrol and start studying online would eventually be able to come to Australia.

However, 65,839 international students deferred their studies between January and June, and only 21 per cent of those have since recommenced their courses.

Migration agent Seema Shah has worked in international student recruitment for nearly two decades.

A woman seated at a desk in front of a computer screen
International student recruiter Seema Shah says Australia will have lost some students to the UK.(Supplied: IAEC)

She expects the majority of deferred students who already hold a visa to eventually commence study in Australia because they have already paid the fees and gone through the approval process.

But she said there would undoubtedly be some lost to other markets.

“The UK had a big intake of students in September and they allowed students to travel, and so I know we have lost many students who have gone to the UK,” she said.

Student slump hits accommodation providers

Universities are far from the only institutions feeling the pain of the pandemic’s hit to the international student market.

A recent analysis by education think tank the Mitchell Institute found international students were in more than 30 per cent of the accommodation in some inner-city and close-to-campus suburbs.

About a third of the students’ spending was in retail and hospitality, with another third spent in the property sector.

Some of that spend ends up in the purpose-built student accommodation sector, comprising specialty housing developments that have capitalised on the massive growth in international student numbers over recent years.

Empty tables and chairs in front of a floor to ceiling window.
This communal area at one of Iglu’s Sydney sites is empty due to students observing social distancing.(ABC News)

Empty seats are not an uncommon sight in student housing before lunchtime, but the halls of Iglu Student Accommodation in inner Sydney are unusually quiet this year.

According to data compiled by property consulting firm Urbis, there are nearly 113,000 purpose-built student accommodation beds in Australia, and a further 45,500 in the pipeline, either under construction, in development or planning.

Clinton Ostwald, the group director at Urbis, said there had been significant growth in the student accommodation sector over the past six years.

“About half of that is actually owned by universities, either directly or through joint venture, and about 40 per cent is owned by private developers, with colleges making up the balance,” he said.

A man in a suit and a blue and pink striped tie standing in front of a window with views of city skyline
Clinton Ostwald says investors consider student accommodation a long-term investment.(Supplied: Urbis)

Iglu owns and runs accommodation in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Mr Gliksten said international students typically made up between 60 to 80 per cent of the occupants depending on the location.

While he is hopeful domestic university enrolments will increase and substitute some of the international students, as has been the case in previous downturns, he still expects to wait several years until occupancy levels return to their pre-coronavirus highs.

Mr Ostwald has the same prediction.

“It’ll take a few years to recover from this sort of crisis once we actually start getting students coming back in that first year, to then convert them to second and third-year students, and actually build that pipeline that helps fill the beds,” he said.