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Nearly 100,000 international students leave Australia as borders remain closed

Source: Getty Images/supersizer

Federal government data indicates Australia has lost more than 100,000 international students over the past financial year. Each student lost can cost the economy nearly $60,000 in terms of tuition fees and overall economic contribution, as per estimates of the International Education Association.

Dilpreet Singh, a former student in Sydney, is amongst hundreds of international students who have resolved to never return to Australia.

The second-year undergraduate told SBS Punjabi that his university’s push to online studies coupled with the government’s “dilly-dallying” towards providing a timeline for the return of overseas students, had compelled him to look at other education destinations like Canada.


  • Australia loses over 100,000 international students in 2020-2021
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  • International student intake will increase once Australia vaccinates 70-80 per cent adults: Alan Tudge

“I was fed up with the same old responses from the Australian government that ‘borders would open soon’. Unlike other countries, they still haven’t provided a hard timeline for the implementation of student pilot programs or reopening of borders for international students,” the 26-year-old said.

Mr Singh, who currently lives in a small village near Amritsar in Punjab, added that online study was not suitable for him due to the poor internet connection in his area.

“Since I had already invested two years and thousands of dollars in Australia, I tried studying online for a semester. But it was too inconvenient. I had to travel to my sister’s home in Amritsar every day at odd times, which started to wear me off, and I eventually gave up,” he explained. 

Indian students
Recurrent lockdowns in Australia eclipse student return plans.
Getty Images/kate_sept2004

Impact of lockdowns

With recurring lockdowns throwing life off track in major student destinations like New South Wales and Victoria, the return of foreign students through state pilot programs has been further pushed down the line. This has aggravated the woes of students stuck offshore and the beleaguered international education sector that is cracking under the pressure of low enrolments and a falling rate of course commencement.

Federal government data indicates a significant decline in enrolments between May 2019 and May 2021, with a sharp decline in new starters from India, which showed a fall of 30 per cent during the period.

Overall commencements too have been negatively impacted indicating that students outside Australia had a higher propensity to defer their courses than preferring to study online.

Speaking at a Times Higher Education event today, federal education minister Alan Tudge indicated that the country will have to vaccinate 70 to 80 per cent of its adult population before considering reopening of borders to allow a capped entry of international students.

He added that the vaccine ramp-up would lead to an uptick in student intake and commencements, which he said could happen by Christmas.

“Now, once we start to get to that position of having more open borders, I think that we are still well-positioned to be able to bring international students back and have our commencement numbers start to accelerate again quite rapidly,” Mr Tudge said. 

Alan Tudge.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge.
AAP Image/Diego Fedele

Status of student return plans

While the New South Wales government has indefinitely postponed its plan to fly in 250 overseas students on charter flights every fortnight, doubts are being cast on Victoria regarding the same as the state government remains in preliminary consultations with the federal government.

In response to SBS Punjabi’s enquiry, a state government spokesperson said Victoria is working with the Commonwealth and education providers to welcome international students when it is safe and reasonable.

“When finalised, our Student Arrivals Plan will guide a staged return of students, and we’ll have more to say when we are in a position to do so,” the spokesperson said.

At present, South Australia is the only state that remains on track to implement its student return plan, which was approved by the Commonwealth in June.

As per the plan, up to 160 students will be flown into the state at a time and will quarantine at the flight school accommodation at Parafield Airport before returning to university campuses.

A state government spokesperson told SBS Punjabi that the South Australian government is working through the plan's logistics which meets all Australian COVID-19 health and safety protocols. 

“The South Australian Government remains committed to the return of international students to continue their education journey as soon as it is practicable and safe to do so, and international students are advised to monitor correspondence from their education institutions for information,” the spokesperson said in a statement to SBS Punjabi. 

Ravi Lochan SIngh
Ravi Lochan Singh, the president of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India (AAERI).
Supplied by Ravi Lochan Singh

Ravi Lochan Singh, president of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, suggested that a cautious and phased opening up of borders must be considered to stifle competition from other global education destinations like the UK, the US and Canada, which have opened their borders to students.

“International students who commenced studies from overseas but have not managed to reach Australia are very disappointed. I understand that there will also be students who will now graduate this year without managing to reach Australia. By contrast, countries such as the UK, Ireland, the US and Canada are making it easier for international students to arrive and study on campus. This is where Australia is losing out,” he said.


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