Consecutive government funding cuts have forced universities to become reliant on international students for funding. As universities restructure in response to COVID-19, both universities and international students are at risk.
As the economic consequences of COVID-19 are being felt globally, Australian universities are at risk of losing between $3 billion and $4.76 billion. However, it isn’t a global pandemic that has caused this loss in revenue. Reliant on international students for funding, the Morrison government’s directive to international students that it is “time to go home” is putting Australian universities and students at risk.
COVID-19 has exposed the significant degree to which Australian universities rely on international students. Australia’s dependence on international students can be traced to government funding cuts, which have forced universities to turn elsewhere for funding. A demand-driven university system was introduced in 2012, removing the limit on government-funded places. These changes paved way for more domestic students to attend university, however it saw the federal government spending more on higher education. In order to mitigate some of these costs, in 2017, the coalition government announced a $2.2 billion cut in funding. As a result of this, universities capped admissions from domestic students. In 2018, an estimated 10,000 domestic university places went unfunded, rising to 23,000 this year. Whilst domestic students have access to commonwealth-supported places at universities through HECS and HELP payment schemes, international students pay for their education upfront. The cost of university for international students can be 50 percent more than domestic students, The fees generated by international students has filled the gap left by government cuts. The University of Sydney in 2017 saw Chinese students generate $500 million in fees, one-fifth of the university’s total revenue. Universities contribute $41 billion annually to the Australian economy, with education as Australia’s third largest export.
With the highest number of international students worldwide, Australian universities are uniquely at-risk from the fallout COVID-19. Australia has 1,559 international students per 100,000 people, compared to 304 per 100,000 in the United States. International students make up 3.6 percent of Australia’s population. In 2018, Chinese students accounted for 38 percent of all international students, with the second-highest group of students coming from India at 18 percent. Chinese students have been the most affected, as travel bans made it difficult for 100,000 Chinese students to travel to Australia for the start of the 2020 school year.
By failing to support Australian universities, the Australian government has made universities reliant on international students for funding. Concerns over Australia’s dependence on Chinese students are not new. COVID-19 has brought to reality the fears of those in higher education: that Australian universities struggle to function at full capacity without international students.
Universities need funding so they can conduct research, provide quality teaching, and support student services. This in turn enhances the student experiences in higher education. Funding for universities also supplies students with facilities and infrastructure for learning. This includes research labs, libraries with the latest books and journals, and classrooms equipped to support learning.
With reporting on the effects of COVID-19 centring on the financial impact on universities, it is essential to also acknowledge how it will affect students. The transition to online learning will see many students go unsupported. Research on online education in the US found that 20 percent of students were unable to access “basic technology needs,” disproportionately affecting students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Universities have set up relief funds to support international and domestic students in need, committing more than $110 million. However, this is not enough as 100,000 international students becoming are at risk of becoming “destitute.” Online learning has enabled international students to continue with their degrees from their home countries. However, for many international students, the adjustment to studying Australian courses at home has proven difficult as they attempt to keep up with lectures, seminars, and tutorials in different time zones.
COVID-19 has changed the pressures and expectations put upon university students. Firstly, it has affected their employment. Many students are now unemployed, and those classified as “essential” such as supermarket employees are working extra hours. This has increased pressures on students as they attempt to juggle work and struggle with economic instability. For international students who are now unemployed, by not being able to access government assistance through JobKeeper or JobSeeker schemes, their future remains uncertain. Secondly, for students with younger siblings or young children who are now at home due to the closure of schools, they have increased childcare obligations. With these students taking up home-schooling and childcare obligations, there is less time for them to focus on their own educations. As universities grapple with how COVID-19 affects their budgets, it is important to keep in mind the changing learning environment and the enhanced pressures put on students.
Beyond their financial contributions, international students provide a diversity of experiences that contribute to tutorial and seminar discussions. In diverse classrooms, students can learn from their peers as well as their lecturers. International students strengthen Australia’s universities, and the Morrison government should acknowledge the importance they play in Australian tertiary education.
The Morrison Government cannot expect universities to continue with business as usual as it asks international students to go home. The government has made universities dependent on international students and thus vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. By telling international students that it’s “time to go home,” the coalition has failed to understand the importance of international students to Australian higher education. International students fill that hole that was left by government cuts, enabling more government-supported places to Australian students, more scholarships, and more research. International students are vital to the success of Australian universities. Without them, students would not enjoy the same high-quality education.
Kate Clayton is an academic at La Trobe University. She has completed her Masters of International Relations (International Security) at the University of Melbourne and a Bachelor of International Relations (Asian Studies) at La Trobe University. In 2019 Kate was an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria.
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