If the government is as keen to lock in the economic recovery as the Treasurer said on Thursday it should reconsider the restrictions on allowing international students to return.
Unless conditions are eased Australia's higher education sector, which had built up what was effectively a $40.3 billion a year export industry prior to the pandemic, will suffer permanent damage.
ABS data indicates the value of the onshore international education sector had already fallen by $8.6 billion, or 21 per cent, to $31.7 billion by the end of 2020. This would have been even greater if existing students had not paid $3.3 billion in fees to study online while living offshore. Once they have completed their courses the demand for online education for students living abroad will plummet.
Tony Yan, a Shanghai-based ANU student, is one of many thousands of increasingly frustrated fee-paying scholars.
He told The Canberra Times if he had known Australia was not going to reopen its borders to international students last year he would have immediately withdrawn from the ANU to start life in a new university.
Europe, Britain, America, and Canada have all kept their borders open to international students during the pandemic. Their universities are obvious alternatives for students denied physical access to Australian campuses and who are paying high fees for what many consider to be a second rate service.
"I often search the Internet for hours or wait for days for an email reply, struggling to understand a concept, whereas on campus I could just ask the person next to me and it takes two minutes," Mr Yan said.
His comments come in the wake of the ACT government's recent rejection of an offer by the ANU to host student quarantine on campus.
Earlier this week the federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge, said he was in no hurry to accept more arrivals from overseas given the resurgence of second and third wave COVID-19 outbreaks around the world.
"With COVID-19 ravaging throughout the world... we need to be very cautious about approving any new quarantine plans for anyone other than returning Australians... [our] number one priority is the health of Australians and their economic security, and we don't want to put that in jeopardy".
While few people would argue with this logic the reality that is being ignored is the important contribution international students make to that economic security.
According to the Mitchell Institute if borders remain largely closed through 2022 the economic value of the international education sector will shrink by almost 50 per cent to $20.5 billion.
Writing in The Conversation, the institute's Peter Hurley, said the situation was dire.
"Between March 2020 and March 2021 the number of international student visa holders dropped by about 140,000," he said. "This suggests about 70,000 new international students need to enter Australia every six months simply to stop enrolments falling further".
He can't see how this could happen given that in February all international arrivals were capped at 6,300 a week.
While critics argue the universities have become too dependent on overseas students it is what it is. And, to their credit, our academic institutions managed to create a major export earner in a remarkably short period of time that has strengthened our ties with the Asia-Pacific region.
The onshore international education sector is a significant economic, diplomatic, and strategic asset. It is too important to be allowed to just wither away and die.
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