By Catriona Jackson, Universities Australia Chief Executive
China’s recent decision to return to its pre-Covid position of recognising only face-to-face study for students enrolled at overseas universities signals a major shift in the international education landscape. This reversion was always going to come and, importantly, it encourages students to return to our campuses for semester one.
That is why this return, which has been eagerly awaited by students and universities, is a good thing. International students, including from China, have been steadily returning since borders reopened at the end of 2021. But Chinese students have been slower to come back than their peers, largely due to their own domestic policies restricting their movement – until now.
While some 40,000 of them remained outside of Australia as of late last year, Beijing’s decision helps smooth the path as we work back to the position of strength we held prior to the pandemic.
The contributions international students make extend well beyond the numbers, but it is important to understand the very significant boost to our prosperity they bring.
We expect that export income data will soon show an improvement in response to students returning, edging us closer to the pre-Covid $40.3 billion economic contribution.
There’s more work to be done, but greater numbers of students coming from China – our largest source market – is a welcome boost in our pursuit of that highwater mark.
The income international students bring to Australia supports hundreds of thousands of jobs, boosts wages and lifts living standards right across the country, not to mention the important university research it helps fund.
The powerful and far-reaching contributions students from over 144 countries make when they come to Australia cannot be understated. They bring new perspectives, knowledge and skills, enriching the cultural life of the communities they join. Our universities also help foster a global network of researchers and alumni who build and maintain understanding between nations and strengthen relationships.
Careful and strategic work by our universities over several decades has given Australia a competitive edge in the global battle for international students. Today, our world-class institutions educate more of them than almost all our peers (close to half a million students from over 144 countries studied here in 2019).
Despite these strong numbers, we are not maximising the longer term returns our comparative advantage offers. Very few of the international students we educate remain here after they graduate – only 28 per cent use their poststudy work rights in Australia and just 16 per cent go on to become permanent residents.
Covid-19 has underscored the urgent need to stop the talent exodus and ignite our economy with more skilled workers.
Migration slowed to a trickle during the pandemic, fuelling the skills crisis that has weighed heavily on our productivity and economic growth for three years, and counting. Skills shortages will continue to be a big issue in 2023, with higher-skilled occupations to be hit hardest.
The government has responded with an increase to Australia’s annual migration intake. This is only part of the solution. We need to do more with the talent and skills already at our disposal.
International students would be aware that Australia is facing a skills shortage and see the opportunity to not only study here, but potentially stay on and work once they graduate. We have an opportunity through the current review of Australia’s migration system to give them that confidence. Streamlining our visa processes to encourage talented graduates to stay on is one important change we can make to retain highlyskilled people.
Students can take their pick of countries to study in. They choose Australia because our universities offer world-class experiences but also because of the enviable lifestyle we offer. If they have the skills and knowledge to complement the talents and expertise of Australian workers, we need to make it easier for them to stay.
Australia’s international education system is one of the best in the world and has played a large part in securing our place in our region, and building a flourishing multicultural country. Simple changes to the migration system would help unlock the full benefits international students offer, helping our nation to grow economically, socially and culturally. We are paying a high price for those we are missing out on.
Catriona Jackson is the chief executive of Universities Australia.
“We need to do more with the talent and skills already at our disposal”