Nour Haydar: Australia’s universities remain confident the new testing regime will not impact the post-pandemic recovery of international student numbers. Catriona Jackson, the Chief Executive of Universities Australia, joins us now. Catriona, thanks for joining News Breakfast.
Catriona Jackson: Good morning.
Nour Haydar: Are you surprised to learn that the government was explicitly told that there was no public health rationale for imposing this testing requirement?
Catriona Jackson: I’ve read those reports as many of your listeners will have, and I’ll be interested to see what Mark Butler, the Health Minister, has got to say about how he reached his position. But look, our position remains the same. It’s incredibly important that we do everything we can to regain the position of strength we had with international education pre-COVID, remembering it’s the biggest services export, supports 250,000 jobs and brings $40 billion into the Australian economy every year.
Nour Haydar: But given the measure doesn’t appear to be backed by the health advice, would you like the government to reverse this decision or at least reconsider it in light of what we know about Paul Kelly’s advice to government?
Catriona Jackson: Look, that’s a decision for government, not for me and not for the university sector. However, we’ll be watching very carefully what Mark Butler says about how he reached that position. I’d like to hear directly from Paul Kelly rather than reading newspaper reports about what he apparently said. We have a deep investment, as universities should, in expert advice, but it’s a matter for government how they reached their decisions. What’s really important here is this is not an impediment to Chinese students returning to Australia. It just means they need to have a test before they get on that aeroplane. We said when this was announced on New Year’s Day that we hope this is a short-lived, temporary measure. I seem to recall the Health Minister had that same hope.
Nour Haydar: The pandemic turned universities on their heads and international student numbers have since bounced back. What sort of implications do you see this decision having on students? Will they, in your view, be able to return for the start of the next semester without any sort of significant disruptions?
Catriona Jackson: International student numbers have recovered well. However, we are not all the way there. We are still about 18 per cent, across the board, behind where we were pre-COVID, and that number is bigger for Chinese students, just because of the impediments they’ve had in getting out of their own country. We very much now welcome the opening of travel for China. At the same time, there is a very complex situation going on right across the world. A bunch of countries, not just Australia, have imposed some restrictions. We would urge Chinese students just to hold with us a little bit longer. Many of them will be able to return pretty much now if they just have that test. And there’s a little bit of time between now and the start of the academic year for us to get this sorted out. As I said before, we really do hope this is a short-lived temporary measure.
Nour Haydar: As you touched on just there Australia has, or many of the international students who study in Australia, do come from China. Have you been given any sense from government as to how long this new arrangement will be in place and whether or not it will indeed disrupt the upcoming semester?
Catriona Jackson: No, we haven’t. Just the indications we heard from the Health Minister himself the other day, that he hopes this is not just a temporary measure, but a short-lived one.
Nour Haydar: Migration more broadly is expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. After losing revenue during the pandemic and seeing some significant cuts to staff at universities, how are Australian universities placed to deal with an increase in demand?
Catriona Jackson: Australian universities have had it really tough, just as the Australian community did during the entire COVID period. Those impacts have been a bit differential right across the sector, but we are absolutely waiting with real serious enthusiasm to welcome international students back, to have a fresh start this year with our domestic cohort as well – Australian students and international students working closely together. It was really interesting to see those little bits out of that population study about migration or international students leading the charge in getting us back to where we were on migration before COVID. This is so important for getting us back into the sort of state of economic health we need to be in. Also noting that around the world, lots of countries are looking at a much gloomier economic position than we are. But it’s great to see those international students right in there with tourism and other sectors leading the charge on getting us back up to pre-COVID migration levels, which is where we need to be to deal with these terrible skill shortages that are still a serious problem for us.
Nour Haydar: Chief Executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, thank you.