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The Impact of Coronavirus on Higher Education in Australia

As the crisis of coronavirus continues, many universities around the world have decided to move their semester for a later time, switch to online classes, and even postpone exam sessions. Likewise, Australian universities are also undertaking safety measures against the transmission of the new coronavirus. The coronavirus outbreak is now affecting major worldwide countries, which also happen to be hubs of international students, also known for their academic excellence. 

Although the primary focus should and must always be the human consequences that the virus has caused, potential economic impacts are also being discussed depending on how much the pandemic lasts. When talking about the impacts the pandemic is having in higher education in Australia, it is important to mention that the effects are already visible. The virus outbreak is spreading during a time where countries have been seeing large numbers of international students, which coincidentally, help a lot with the economy of the country. 

Statistics show that there are currently around 738,107 international students in Australia. China is the top country of origin of these international students, with a total number of 203,295, according to the latest statistics. The current coronavirus crisis will be especially evident among Chinese students which are such an essential part of Australian university campuses, making around 28% of Australia’s international student community.

The virus has caused disturbances when it comes to how international students study, are accommodated, as well as in their mental wellbeing. Many will not be able to travel back and forth due to travel restrictions and the danger that travelling among large crowds of people brings to the country. It is a priority of the government to protect the people, especially those who are more vulnerable and prevent the transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19). Therefore, universities and all other educational and non-educational institutions must comply with the advice of the government. 

How Are Australian Universities Handling the Situation? 

Many Australian universities are doing what is in their power to avoid face-to-face teaching. Higher education institutions have begun moving their teaching activities online and cancelling all events that are not crucial until late June, as the University of Queensland has announced for its institution. Campuses, however, have remained open for the time being and are still operating. Study spaces and food services (only takeaway) have been declared to remain open and staffed. The condition is that everyone complies with the rules of social distance. 

International students who were in their home countries might not be able to return to Australia due to travel restrictions and safety measures. For more, those who do travel are required to isolate for a minimum of 14 days. 

The University of Sydney, as well, has announced that all classes will commence online with exception to some clinical placements and workshops, which will continue to be taught on campus. Social distancing measures and other health precautions will be respected. The University of Sydney has even moved their tests online, which are to be held in exam-like conditions (timed and supervised).

Universities are also offering the option of “suspending studies” until a later date. This should be done by students through a proper application process and it will not be prone to any academic or financial penalty. The ability of universities to adapt to the changes, which are necessary to occur, is essential. Offering flexible teaching methods, being understanding of the circumstances, and adapting to online teaching quickly, will be beneficial now and in the long run. 

The University of Melbourne has claimed to offer support grants up to 7,500 AUD in order to help the students who are affected by the travel ban and unanticipated expenses. Australian National University, as well, is willing to offer all affected Chinese students up to 5,000 AUD in reimbursement for unexpected costs due to the travel ban, if they remain enrolled after 3 June. This university is also offering financial aid to students who undertake online participation in the first semester. 

Universities are working with the Australian government closely, as well as with their counterparts in China, in order to minimize the effects the current coronavirus situation might have in students’ education. 

Will International Student Numbers Decrease in Australian Universities?

It is likely that international student numbers will decrease, especially if the pandemic lasts longer than it is expected. Initially, it is fair to assume that people will be reluctant to travel with large groups of people or gather at large events. This instantly means cancellation of travels. Reluctance and inability to travel due to restrictions are the factors that contribute to the decrease of international student numbers. 

There are students who are currently in China unable to come back, and there are students from China who are emotionally affected by the situation in their country and the world. Non-Australian nationals travelling from high-risk countries most affected by the virus are currently prohibited from entering Australia. However, if the situation is contained at a faster pace, then thousands of international students stuck in China will have the possibility to commence their studies mid-year. Student mobility is one of the immediate effects the pandemic is having on higher education in Australia. 

What Does This Mean for Australian Universities and the Economy? 

Well, a smaller number of enrolments will automatically mean a smaller number of students in a class. If classes are too small, universities will be required to cancel them altogether. This might particularly affect the postgraduate level of studies, where a large number of students come from abroad.

In 2018/2019, international education was worth $37.6 billion to the Australian economy, with China (excluding SARs and Taiwan) contributing around $12,095m. Accommodation providers, restaurants, tourism services, transport and all those who usually provide to international students will also be impacted by the decrease in international student numbers. 

However, Australia’s higher education system and the academic excellence of its universities are highly regarded worldwide. So, it is safe to assume that international student interest to study in this country will remain intact and commence as soon as the pandemic ends.