Subjects: International students returning to Australian universities; COVID vaccine rollout.
SAM WILKINSON: The new Federal Education Minister says there isn't currently a timeline for when international students can return to Australian universities, saying they're taking it week by week at this stage. Alan Tudge says that until the rollout of a COVID vaccine domestically, international student numbers cannot return to their pre-pandemic levels.
Well, speaking to ABC News Radio's Jamie Travers, Mr Tudge says he's open to alternative plans from the states and territories for safely bringing students to Australia.
ALAN TUDGE: It's very difficult to predict. Ordinarily, we have about 185,000 students who would cross the borders and come into Australia to start at the beginning of the academic year, and about the same number again in the middle of the year. Now, when we can get back to those types of numbers, I don't know yet. We're really taking it week by week and month by month. Obviously, a big factor in all of this is the vaccine and how effective that will be. And should that vaccine be effective, then it really does make a big difference and we may be able to take numbers in again.
JAMIE TRAVERS: Vaccine aside, we've seen proposals in Queensland for agriculture workers, getting them to quarantine on-farms. Is there a scheme that we could use when it comes to international students? Could we have on-campus quarantine? Are those options that are being looked at?
ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, we're open to looking at all options, but we're asking the education providers to work with the state governments, come up with their plans, get the tick off by their state Chief Medical Officers, and then present them to us. That's the process. Now, the state governments are working through those things, along with the higher education providers, but we're still not at that stage yet where we're in the position to be able to have significant quarantining arrangements for those international students.
JAMIE TRAVERS: So, have any of those state or territory governments come to you with proposals like the one that I just referred to?
ALAN TUDGE: No, not detailed proposals, no. But many of them are working on that. And of course, those proposals need to be above and beyond what their existing quarantining arrangements are, which are available for Australians who are returning. And that's one of the other preconditions. I would say though, what gives me potentially a bit of hope is, is if the vaccine is effective. Even if we get it rolled out here in Australia at a relatively wide scale, and it's rolled out only partially in some of the major source countries where we get international students, if those students have been vaccinated then there's the potential for them to be able to come into Australia, of course, without having to quarantine. Now, there's a few ifs in that. We have to make sure the vaccines work. We have to have some surety about the fact that the student has indeed been vaccinated with a proper vaccine and we know that that person is safe to come into Australia.
JAMIE TRAVERS: This is an enormous industry. I mean, how many billions of dollars are we talking about in the higher education space?
ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, so it's about a $40 billion industry. It’s our third or fourth biggest export industry. My home state of Victoria, it’s our biggest export industry. And it's supports about 250,000 jobs because of the size of that industry. Now, on the plus side, if I can be slightly optimistic, we still have a lot of enrolments into our universities of students who are offshore, but now studying online. And we've made a lot of changes to facilitate that, as have the universities and higher education providers themselves. So that when you actually look at the data for the TAFEs and the public universities, the enrolments as of the end of last year was only down about five per cent. Where we've really seen the more significant enrolment decline is actually in the private higher education providers, and there’s about 130 of those. And they've had about a 30, 40 per cent enrolment decline. And they're the ones that are probably hurting the most at the moment, along with some of the English language providers. But as far as those public universities and some of the TAFEs - yes they’re down, but not down too much. But we are obviously keeping a very close eye on what the enrolments look like in this academic year.
JAMIE TRAVERS: Is it the case that the industry has become too reliant on international students as part of their business model?
ALAN TUDGE: It's certainly now a large part of their revenue source, and there's been tremendous growth in international students over the last decade. That revenue then is used to largely fund research, and we often get some brilliant globally significant research come out of that. Universities, of course, are all looking at how they recover and do things differently in the absence of the same level of international students that we've seen in the past few years. We're assisting with that process as well. We put an extra billion dollars in research dollars last year as well as 30,000 more places for Australian students this year, which helps their revenue as well.
JAMIE TRAVERS: International students were for a long time the golden goose for the higher education sector. Are we looking at a new status quo, which means fewer international students and more domestic students going to higher education institutions?
ALAN TUDGE: We certainly have more domestic students going to higher education institutions because of the measures that we've put in place. International student numbers, I hope that they do come back, because they have been very good for Australia, for our economy, for our society. And indeed, we've got some incredible citizens who have started out as international students and become Aussies down the track. So we want to get those numbers back. I'm going to be working with the sector to do so. But we've got to take it very carefully, guided by the health advice. Obviously, Australians are keen to come back into the country, and so they get priority over the existing quarantine arrangements. But I'm still hopeful that at some stage, we will be able to get more significant numbers back.