How Australia can rebuild its reputation as a higher education destination

As 2019 drew to a close, Australia looked set to overtake the UK as the world’s second-most popular study abroad destination. Foreign enrollments had skyrocketed, universities had shot up the global rankings, and the government was investing more money than ever before.

Australia’s higher education sector was riding on the crest of a wave, but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to bring it all crashing down. 

Why was Australia’s reputation damaged?  

When the nation went into lockdown, international students were among the worst affected. A Unions NSW survey1 revealed that of the 6,000 international students interviewed:

  • 60% had lost their jobs
  • 31% didn’t have money to pay rent and expected to be evicted
  • 46% were skipping meals to save money

Despite these staggering statistics, international students were excluded from any income and business support schemes. They were bluntly told “it’s time to go home” by the Australian Prime Minister, if they couldn’t afford to live in the country.

Later, Education Minister Dan Tehan added salt to the wound by stating that his higher education relief package was “unashamedly focused on domestic students”. 

The fact that Australia’s main rivals in the international education market - the US, UK, and Canada - had rolled out extensive international student support schemes only delivered further blows to its reputation. 

Such uncompassionate actions left Australia’s 738,000 international students feeling abandoned and forgotten. These struggles cannot go unnoticed and unresolved if the country wants to salvage its international reputation. 


Why are international students so important? 

The Australian higher education system is highly reliant on international students. Overseas pupils account for over 30% of the country’s total student population, with their tuition fees making up more than 25% of the average university’s income. 

However, The Mitchell Institute2 predicts that the number of international students enrolled at Australian universities could halve by mid-2021. This equates to roughly 300,000 fewer international students and a loss of approximately A$16bn. 

In light of this shortfall, recruiting and retaining international students has become one of the country’s top priorities. 


Has the Chinese student market been affected?

China has long been a key supplier of international students to Australian HEIs. According to the Financial Times3, Chinese students accounted for 10% of international students at Australia’s eight most prestigious universities in 2019.

Worryingly, enrolments from China have been affected more than those from any other country. Visa applications from Chinese students fell by 20% in February 2020 compared to the year before.

The decline in applications could be explained by the fact that Chinese students were amongst the first to have travel restrictions imposed upon them after the virus outbreak. This meant many pupils were unable to enter Australia before the beginning of the first semester. 

On the other hand, it could be a consequence of increased diplomatic tensions between Australia and China. After reports of xenophobic incidents that target people of Asian descent, China accused Australia of fueling COVID-19 related racism. This resulted in the Chinese government warning its students against traveling to Australia. 

Unfortunately, it seems like this message has been received loud and clear. In a recent survey of students Chinese pupils4, 84% no longer wanted to study abroad after the pandemic. Those that were still interested were prioritizing Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan. 

Sadly for Australia, the only destinations outside of Asia that showed any significant popularity were the UK and the US.


How can Australia rebuild its reputation? 


Treat existing students better

To attract new pupils, universities must look after the students they’ve already enrolled. Low satisfaction rates will undermine any other recruitment efforts you make and could tarnish Australia’s reputation as a higher education destination. 

Research suggests1 many pupils have already warned their friends and family against studying in Australia because of how they’d been treated. In fact, 59% of current international students said they’d be “somewhat less likely or far less likely to recommend Australia as a place for others to study”. 

Remember that your current international students are your institution’s most powerful recruitment tool. Research5 shows that student ambassadors have the largest influence on prospective students’ application and enrollment decisions. They value the “unique and honest perspective on academics, student life, and local culture” they offer.

As such, ensuring your current students feel valued and supported is crucial to maintaining, rebuilding, or growing your admissions.


Support students’ mental health 

Studying abroad is a huge lifestyle change that can cause high levels of stress and anxiety. But for international students trying to navigate their way through a pandemic, these mental health challenges have only been amplified. 

With border closures, lost jobs, ill health, course cancelations, and financial difficulties, international students have had more to worry about than ever. Therefore, addressing the mental health concerns of existing and prospective pupils is vital. 

Rather than taking a blanket approach to mental health support, universities must assist students on an individual basis. Talking to students and their parents about the support systems you have in place, as well as any events and workshops you run, will help to win their trust and confidence. 


Celebrate multicultural campuses

Many students have felt othered and rejected by the government’s insensitive messaging and exclusive policies. Therefore, it couldn’t be more vital for universities to stand side by side with their international pupils and celebrate their diverse campuses.

Students are less likely to enroll at a university that only views them as a paycheck. They want an institution that values them, will get to know them, and will support them through any hurdles they may encounter. 

Use your marketing materials to showcase the contributions that foreign pupils make to your university, as well as any inclusive activities you run and support services you have in place.


Provide financial support 

As one of the world’s most expensive places to live and study, Australia is already over budget for many international students. However, to safeguard your recruitment strategy, your institution needs to engage with pupils from a variety of backgrounds

Some experts in the field claim that Australia can only regain its position as one of the world’s most popular study abroad destinations if it cuts international student tuition fees. 

Other academics6 have suggested that “if Australia’s reputation as a destination for higher education is to remain, Federal Government Covid-19 support needs to be extended to international students who remain in Australia”.

Many Australian universities are in financial trouble as they juggle monetary losses and staff redundancies. However, if your institution can extend its existing scholarship and grant programs, this could provide a huge return on investment. 

Showcasing the types of financial support available at your institution is guaranteed to catch the eye of prospective students and could provide a much-needed boost to applications.  


Invest in digital education

In the age of COVID-19, video learning technologies are no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Although universities and students are itching to get back in the classroom full-time, planning for a mix of face-to-face and online learning is the most sensible approach.

Since 44% of international students said they’d be willing to study online for three months before beginning on-campus learning in the International Student Crossroads Survey7, they’ll be on the lookout for the institutions that deliver the best distance learning options. 

By investing in the latest digital platforms, your institution can provide high-quality learning experiences to students no matter their whereabouts. Not only will it mimic classroom learning until things get back to normal, but it will continue to enhance the experiences of enrolled students after the pandemic too.


Other favorable factors

Low infection rates

Australia’s low Covid-19 infection rates could be the secret to higher-education recovery. Now more than ever, international students are choosing destinations based on their perceived safety. 

This sentiment is echoed in a 2020 Navitas survey8. Education agents from 63 different countries believed Australia’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak made it a more attractive study abroad destination. By contrast, the UK and US were the least well perceived.

Australia’s robust management of the pandemic and low rate of transmission means it could be one of the first countries to return to in-person teaching. Make sure you emphasize the health and safety measures your institution has in place when communicating with parents and students. This will reassure them that they’ll be looked after, receive value for money, and an authentic university experience.


Take advantage of the academic calendar

The fact that the Australian academic year traditionally begins between February and March could be a lifeline for many universities.

There’s hope that by spring 2021, international student mobility will return to some kind of normality. Since students in most other countries don’t commence their studies until autumn, Australian universities could poach eager students who originally had other destinations in mind. 

If you want to boost your university's international recruitment and conversion rates, book a free, non-obligatory meeting now. 

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1Unions NSW survey (Unions NSW, 2020)

2Coronavirus and international students (The Mitchell Institute, 2020)

3Australian business schools: will overseas students return? (Financial Times, 2020)

4Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on international higher education and student mobility: Student perspectives from mainland China and Hong Kong (International Journal of Educational Research, 2021)

5Peer-to-Peer Student Conversations: How influential are they and what's their value for your recruitment strategy? (Unibuddy & Instead, 2020)

6The Young Australians Hit Hard During Covid-19 (University of Melbourne, 2020)

7IDP Connect International Student Crossroads Survey (IDP, 2020)

8COVID-19 is changing the fortunes of international education destinations (Navitas Insights, 2020)