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Focus less on reopening Australia’s borders and more on better online teaching, expert says

International education advocates express frustration over the lack of return strategy of international students. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

While international students wait with bated breath for their return to Australia, a tertiary education advisor has called on Australian education providers to bolster the education and support it is offering to students studying online. On Campus Morning Mail, Claire Field, an advisor to Australia’s tertiary education sector, said the international education sector “needs to move swiftly from calling for borders to open to students, to arguing forcefully (as the tourism sector now is) for specific government assistance until students return”.

“The dilemma is that while this might be a successful strategy for independent providers, it is less likely to work for universities (if 2020 offers any precedent). The sector needs to think carefully about its communications or run the risk that when students return they face increased hostility,” she said. “As the sector continues to argue for its survival and makes claims that Australia’s reputation will be damaged by keeping borders closed — it has one mechanism entirely within its control to lift its reputation — the education and support it is offering to students studying online.”

State premiers’ continuous flip flop on pilot schemes for international students’ return has done little to alleviate their concern — New South Wales’s pilot scheme, for instance, to return 1,000 international students to Sydney each week has been shelvedVictorian premier Daniel Andrews offered little hope over students’ return to Australia via Victoria, saying, “… the government is not spending hours and hours trying to make something that I think is, frankly, not possible, possible. Tens and tens of thousands of international students coming back here is going to be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, during this year.”

Patience is wearing thin — some international students are already making plans to study elsewhere that would give them an on-campus experience. Students from India, Nepal and China are heading north instead, to universities in Canada and the UK, according to reports by university vice-chancellors and international education agents. Australia’s international education sector is worth 40 billion Australian dollars nationally; with the exodus of students, this source of revenue is in jeopardy for many Australian education providers.

Firing salvos over lack of student support

Speaking to SBS Punjabi, Global Reach director Ravi Lochan Singh questioned why the country continues to grant visas to new students when it has “no real plan” to let them return to Australia in this year.  Global Reach represents Australian universities in south Asia. “If you look at the student visa grant numbers, by now there will be around 15,000 students from the sub-continent with visas studying one to two subjects online. They all started doing that in expectation of them returning to Australia by the first intake of 2021.”

It is essential that Australia fulfilled its initial promise to bring stranded international students back in the first half of this year, including those who have paid and received their visas. “Once that happens, prospective students will still prefer to study in Australia rather than considering the UK or Canada,” Singh was quoted saying.

International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) CEO Phill Honeywood previously tweeted that “our political community is relaxed about tennis, cricket players and their entourages coming here for a few weeks BUT not a small number of returning students!” IEAA has previously said it will continue lobbying the federal government and write to Morrison over students’ return to Australia.

Where are Australian education providers failing?

A study by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) on online learning in Australian higher education during the pandemic found that while “a great deal of effort was put into making the transition to online or remote learning as good as possible,” a significant percentage of students “indicated that they did not wish to continue with remote study and wished to return to a face-to-face experience as soon as possible”. TEQSA is Australia’s independent national quality assurance and regulatory agency for higher education. 

A key issue with online learning is engagement. Students reported that the duration of classes in the transitional online mode was less than for face-to-face instruction. Many providers also tend to reschedule classes when they moved content to online mode, disrupting student schedules. “The students reported that this was unsettling and led a number to comment that they didn’t think they were getting ‘value for money’ by receiving tuition in the online mode,” said the report.

“While most Australian-based students will return to on-campus study this year — we owe it particularly to those stuck offshore to provide meaningful support and excellent online education,” Field said.

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