International students are choosing to go into lockdown conditions in countries ravaged by coronavirus over the uncertainty of enroling at Australian universities, the Australian National University vice-chancellor says.
Figures from the ANU show the number of acceptances from overseas students compared to semester one last year has dropped by only 4 per cent, but Professor Brian Schmidt said it was unlikely all of the 1661 students who have accepted offers would enrol because of Australia's border closures.
"I think the big challenge is that the students have basically shown that they're prepared to go to the United Kingdom, Canada, US, despite the chaos there because their borders are open," he said.
"And I'm not saying Australia should open its borders. What I'm saying is, that's the harsh reality of how students are behaving."
The university's finances took a large hit when international students were locked out of the country, with the impact continuing for the length of their degrees.
Professor Schmidt said the situation would be "much happier" if there was a way to safely bring overseas students to the ACT, but current outbreaks stemming from hotel quarantine had set plans back indefinitely.
"Quarantine is hard and until we systematically are able to do it differently I just don't think there's going to be any appetite by the ACT government or the federal government to bring students in because you can see what happens."
There's more pain ahead for ANU staff as the institution downsizes in response to what the vice-chancellor describes as the biggest shock the university has ever had.
Up to 322 jobs will go as part of the recovery plan, including 103 positions in the College of Science alone.
The vice-chancellor has had to oversee job cuts in his former department, the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
"These are, you know, some major cuts. The College of Sciences is our biggest college and therefore we had had large cuts. And these are my friends."
There will be more life on campus this year as smaller classes will be held in-person. Large lectures will continue to be held remotely and overseas students will have access to remote-only streams if the class sizes are big enough to support it.
The ANU has also seen a 29 per cent increase in acceptances among domestic students compared to last year as more Australians are pushed into the higher education market.
Professor Schmidt conceded the quality of education delivered by remote learning in 2020 was not as good as pre-pandemic years but insisted students still got value for money.
"Our students and our staff are grumpy because it was hard, but ... just going and counting the ceiling tiles for a year is not very attractive. So was it perfect? No, but the entire world was set backwards last year. But I think our students did get value for money.
"But I would also say it's not as good as the non-COVID years, but we did the best we can. We're continuing to improve and we're trying to do the best we can by our students."