Australia’s dwindling number of foreign students are leaving the country in droves with Chinese students leading the pack, new data reveals.
The international education sector had been one of the country’s biggest export markets – worth $37.6billion in flow-on benefits to the Australian economy in 2019 – but that was rapidly being eroded due to government restrictions on visas and inward travel.
In December 2020, almost a quarter of all overseas departures from Australia were students on temporary visas leaving the country, new Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show.
Many students have not been able to come back to Australia since the nation severely restricted inward travel on March 20.
Chinese students were one of the largest groups to leave the country in December as university courses finish (pictured: Student Zheng Zizan from Xian in China poses for family photos after graduating with a Masters of Commerce from Sydney University)
Sunny Gu and his girlfriend Maggie Zhang in August 2020, international students from China, arrive at Sydney Airport to catch a flight back home
Almost a fifth of all departures, 18.7 per cent, were Chinese citizens with 9,300 travelling out of the country, while Indian citizens were next with 5,400 leaving our shores.
Associate professor Anna Boucher from the University of Sydney said the figures would be expected considering the two countries provide our largest cohort of international students.
‘Over the space of last year a lot of people of migrant background in Australia are becoming increasingly alarmed at how long they’ve been away from family,’ the global immigration expert told news.com.au.
‘It’s not such a long flight from Australia to China, and maybe some of them made the decision they’d prefer to be home to finish the degree there and then if they still have that connection to Australia to apply for visa status subsequently.’
The next highest on the list of foreigners leaving Australia in December was New Zealanders, followed by people from the UK and the United States.
Although Australian citizens were the largest group to fly out of the country last month – accounting for 12,100 of the total 49,900 departures.
Leading up to international borders being closed in March 2020 to halt the spread of coronavirus, the international education sector had experienced five years of double-digit growth in Australia.
University campuses have turned into ghost towns over 2020 as students study online and international students numbers drop (pictured: the University of Sydney)
A packed university library at UTS before international travel bans were brought in (pictured)
This has ground to a halt over 2020 with the sector shrinking courtesy of prolonged travel bans.
According to the government there were eight percent fewer international students enrolled in Australian university courses in October 2020 compared to October 2019.
Experts warn this number could drop further as students who finish their courses between October and January 2021 – about 120,000 according to the government, are not replaced by new students signing up to begin their degrees in Australia.
Peak body Universities Australia said in June 2020 universities were likely to experience up to $4.8billion in lost revenue by the end of the year.
They also estimated this number could balloon to $16billion by 2023.
‘We can’t pretend that won’t have a big impact. Not only does that revenue support the staff and facilities to educate the next generation of skilled workers, it also pays for much of the research and innovation that keeps Australia internationally competitive,’ CEO Catriona Jackson said.
The flow on effect to the Australia economy from a drop of international students such as for the retail sector is also expected to be significant (pictured: people shop in Sydney in August 2020)
Universities across the country introduced mass redundancies in 2020 to cope with the the decrease in students numbers.
More than 12,000 university workers, about half of which were casual and contract staff, had lost their jobs, according to the National Tertiary Education Union.
Compounding the problem is that many international student visa holders are completing their courses remotely outside of Australia and thus are not contributing to the wider economy.
Flow on effects from foreign students not spending cash in areas such as the retail and property markets are significant.
For example, popular areas for student to rent such as Docklands in Melbourne has a 14.2 per cent higher rental vacancy rate than a year ago, while in Sydney, the CBD and Haymarket areas had an 8.5 per cent increase in rental vacancies.
An effort to bring back in some international students has stalled, with the government saying this would only happen once all state borders remain open.