Indian students contributed AUS$6.6 billion to the Australian economy in 2019-20, second only to China, and has been a consistent growth area over the last five years. However, the second half of 2020 saw a significant drop in interest.

According to data from the Department of Education, Australian HE saw a 35% decline in new international students enrolling in July-November 2020, with enrolments from Indian students dropping by more than 80% in that period to just 2,500.

In comparison, the decline in new Chinese student enrolments was around 8%.

President of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India Ravi Lochan Singh said that at the start of the pandemic there was still a definite pipeline of students to Australia. A survey carried out by AAERI in August 2020 indicated that while less than 10% of Indian students were keen to study online and there were deferments, the majority of the students were still not cancelling their study plans.

“At that time, the students from the Indian sub-continent were going by the announcement of the Australian prime minister that by August international students would begin being returned under Stage Three of the return to normalcy,” he said.

“Student visas were continuing to be approved and granted and there are 15,000 students from the sub-continent studying one to two subjects online. They all started doing that in expectation of being able to return to Australia by the first intake of 2021. This is what was assured by the education agencies and the universities.”

Now however, Singh said, students are fed up and looking elsewhere.

“There’s a general feeling of a lack of interest on the part of the government”

“There’s a general feeling of a lack of interest on the part of the government. The government doesn’t seem to be indicating anything positive for the students who are in the pipeline so they would obviously prefer a destination which is open like the UK or Canada or even the US,” he explained.

“But on the other hand the government is continuing to issue student visas. I mean, come on, if you don’t have a real intent to bring them back until the end of the year then tell students. Just tell them to study online and apply for a visa when the borders open. The moment you’ve given a visa there’s an expectation that they’ll be able to travel and that’s just not happening.”

Singh also believes institutions need to accept some responsibility for the downturn, saying the delay in fee reductions and a lack of acknowledgement of the wishes of this cohort has contributed to the declining interest. He added that less than 10% of students were willing to study online for longer than one semester.

“On top of that they really didn’t want to pay $30,000-35,000 a year to study on their own mobile phones at home. Now institutions have started offering these discounts because they don’t have any other options,” he said.

“The writing has been there on the wall that you can’t offer the same fees for online as face to face but it took them six months to understand that.

“And I don’t know who told them they could expect large numbers of online enrolments from South Asia because that’s just not the case. These students want to experience a foreign land.”

However Singh also has sympathy for the position Australian education providers are in, who he referred to as also being “at the mercy of what the government wants to do”.

“It is absolutely essential that Australia lives up to its promise to the stranded international students”

He believes if action is not taken now Australia will continue to lose the South Asian market and will need to invest significant time and money to regain the momentum that had been building. Ongoing talk of proposals for pilot flights and return plans that don’t come to fruition are doing more harm than good.

“It is absolutely essential that Australia lives up to its promise to the stranded international students who need to undertake their studies and have paid and received their visas,” he concluded.

“Once that happens, prospective students will still keep Australia amongst their options.”

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