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Australian universities may never recover their pre-pandemic market share of international student recruitment, a leading scholar has said, after the prospect of significant numbers of overseas students entering the country this year diminished.

Daniel Andrews, the premier of the state of Victoria, said last month that “tens of thousands of international students coming back here is going to be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, this year,” adding that the state did not have the facilities to accommodate large numbers of students in quarantine. The New South Wales government also shelved its plans to return 1,000 international students to Sydney each week, following new COVID-19 outbreaks.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Brendan Murphy warned that the country’s international borders were unlikely to fully reopen until at least 2022.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said in 2018 that Australia was poised to overtake Britain as the second most popular global destination for international students in 2019. However, speaking to Times Higher Education, he said it was now “impossible to see that position being restored.”

“If the pandemic is over by the end of 2021, international enrolments will recover significantly in 2022 in Australia, but it will take five years or more for Australia to recover the 2019 enrollment, and it will take longer to recover market share … In fact, Australia may not recover market share in the longer run,” he said.

“My sense is that international education in Australia is in deep, deep trouble. That means higher education is in deep trouble and scientific research is in equally deep trouble, because this is heavily financed from international student fees.”

Marginson, a former professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, said, “There is now a major forking of the way” between the British and Australian higher education systems, because Australia has closed its borders during the pandemic, while Britain has not, as well as the greater dependence on international student fees and weaker public science funding in Australia.

“My political nose tells me that [Australia’s] government is not greatly worried about the declining position of university science and still less about the overall position of universities in Australia. It knows that the decline of international education means that the economy will take a hit, but with this government, politics comes before economics,” Marginson said.

Marginson said that Australia was also “more caught up than is the U.K. in the U.S. conflict with China, while also being regionally more dependent on China.”

“After 20 golden years carried along partly by Chinese students, a bad period is coming up for Australian universities; in fact, it has already arrived,” he said.

William Locke, director of Melbourne’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, said that the impact of Australia’s border restrictions would depend on universities’ ability to attract international students to study online, at least initially, with the promise of in-person study later in their course.

“This will be about more than just the quality of the online learning, and as much about providing connection with domestic Australian and other international students in a simulation of the on-campus experience,” he said.

Locke added that “it may help that the main competitors for Australian universities, the U.S. and the U.K., are in a much worse situation with the pandemic and the political turmoil of Trump and Brexit,” although he said that the “Australians first” rhetoric from the government did not help the country’s prospects.

“Any announcements about loosening restrictions will need to be made sooner rather than later, giving time for students and universities to prepare and to give a positive message about Australia being fully open again in 2022,” he said.

Sydney-based tertiary education consultant Claire Field said that “the sad reality is that there is little community support within Australia for international students to return ahead of Australians trapped overseas because of our closed border.”

“While Australia may lose some prospective international students as a consequence of our closed international border, the impact on the sector is unknowable at this stage,” she said. “If the rollout of the vaccine allows for a staggered return of students to Australia over the course of 2021, then Australia is likely to continue to remain an attractive destination.”

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