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Open borders signal next stage in international education recovery

For almost half of the international students holding a visa to study at Australia’s universities, border openings ahead of new teaching sessions present the first opportunity in two years for a return to face-to-face study.

Since borders re-opened in December, more than 23,000 university students have entered Australia – with data from the Department of Home Affairs showing that this is the first uptick since March 2020 (Chart 1).

Source: Department of Home Affairs (2022)

While around 20% of university-enrolled visa holders are usually outside of Australia at any point in time, that share had risen to 51% by December 2021. Retaining students studying online from outside Australia was critical to the resilience of the university sector in the past two years. Even at the end of 2021, the total number of enrolled students was still sitting at only 85% of 2019 levels.

Partially offsetting these losses, Australia saw a record number of domestic postgraduate enrolments in 2020, while closed international borders meant fewer gap years and more school leavers heading straight to university. Altogether, 43,000 more domestic students enrolled at universities in 2020 than in 2019. 

While borders are now open, a full recovery in international student numbers will likely still take some time. Changing global conditions and economic shocks in key source markets will drive ongoing uncertainty for the sector, along with a lack of available seats on flights to Australia. Also, enrolments in English language courses – a major pathway for university enrolments – have dropped substantially, to 25% of 2019 levels.

At the end of last year, there were 76,800 fewer students enrolled in Australian universities than at the end of 2019, with the most significant reductions in regions with longer lockdowns or extended border restrictions (Chart 2).

Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment (2022)

Ongoing uncertainty remains a risk for the university sector. However, looking at the  challenges using only a monetary or workforce lens overlooks the opportunity to build back better – in a way that leverages and celebrates the broader contributions that international education makes to Australia’s social fabric, economic sophistication, knowledge and international networks. 

In the meantime, with the return of this first cohort, Australia’s universities and communities stand to benefit from the diverse contributions of an enthusiastic student body, some of whom have patiently studied online for two years for the opportunity to come back onshore. Welcoming these students well will be a critical next step in the sector’s recovery.