Australia: slow return of Chinese students could “split” universities

Published 15/04/2022

International students are “slowly returning” to Australia, but the absence of Chinese students could create a “split” across universities, a new report has warned.

The number of international students entering the country is down 75% from pre-pandemic levels, despite Australia’s borders now being open to fully vaccinated travellers – including students – according to credit risk research company S&P Global Ratings.

Although February is typically the busiest month for student arrivals, with most university courses starting in spring, the report found that only 49,430 international students arrived in February 2022 – down from 121,400 students in February 2020 and 184,000 in February 2019.

S&P noted a particular lag in the return of Chinese students to Australia, with the number of Chinese student commencements down almost 40% from 2019.

The report blames this slow return on the current lockdowns in China, as well as geopolitical tensions between Australia and China, which it says are “a key downside risk that could structurally weaken Chinese student demand”.

S&P warned that the reduced number of Chinese students in Australia could cause a “split within the sector, as more prestigious universities soak up the smaller number of Chinese students”, and predicts that some universities may look to “seek new markets”.

“Growth in international student markets in the region include countries with a growing middle class”

“We believe Australian universities will continue to attract international students, especially from Asia,” ​​said Rebecca Hrvatin, an analyst at S&P Global Ratings.

“Growth in international student markets in the region include countries with a growing middle class, such as the subcontinent – India, Nepal, Pakistan – and southeast Asian countries – Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia.”

Hrvatin also predicts that it will take a “number of years” for incoming student flows to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“It will take time to be able and to have confidence to be mobile to return,” Hrvatin said. “There are still valid constraints internationally with pandemic-related travel restrictions and policy differences globally.”

Speaking on behalf of Universities Australia, chief executive Catriona Jackson said that the body recognises “the pipeline effect caused by our closed borders,” which “means that universities will continue to see subdued enrolments due to the reduction in first year starting students over the last two years.”

However Jackson said they “look to the future with optimism”, adding that “with our high vaccination rates, desirable education experience and diverse study pathways to choose from, Australia’s universities have good stories to tell.

“Our campuses continue to attract students from around 144 countries, including our top three source locations – China, Nepal and India.”

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