International students are dumping Australia for the UK and US due to border rules

But days before Mr Gupta was meant to get on that flight, the Australian government announced – in the wake of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron – that it would delay the arrival of international students by two weeks.

Instead of being permitted to enter the country from 1 December, international students are now set to arrive from 15 December, although Health Minister Greg Hunt said he wasn’t “making any guarantees,” about the date when asked this week. 

“It’s our intention at the end of that period, subject to the science and medical advice, to return to the previous settings. It will depend on the international evidence,” he told Sky News. 

“I had packed my bags. I had started filling out forms. I had reserved myself [for] a PCR test and all my documents were ready. [But] in a moment, it all was useless. It was heartbreaking,” Mr Gupta said.

While he’s determined to continue studying in Australia having completed more than one year of the course online, Mr Gupta said many international students are reconsidering their plans to study in Australia, due to the country’s hardline – and often fickle – border rules.

According to Badri Aryal, the director of Expert Education – a Sydney-based company that specialises in attracting international students to Australia – many students have already given up on Australia.

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“We work with many countries around the world, but when I look at India, around 60 per cent of students who were going to come to Australia are [now] going to the UK, Canada or the US,” Mr Aryal told SBS News.

His estimate is somewhat supported by data released by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment earlier this year, which showed universities across Australia experienced a steep decline in the number of enrolments and course commencements in 2021.

“The number that really worries me is the 40 per cent decline in commencements,” Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, told SBS News.

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia.

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“Obviously, that’s very much a product of us having closed borders [with] students deferring their studies to another year [and some deciding] to go somewhere else.”

Sakhawat Alee is one of those students who chose to study elsewhere.

He was a student at Sydney’s Macquarie University when, in March 2020, he travelled to his hometown of Gujarat in Pakistan for a family emergency.

On his way back to Sydney, Mr Alee was at an international airport in Pakistan about to board a flight when he heard Australia was closing its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents.

The entry ban took effect from 9pm AEDT on 20 March 2020.

“I missed that by nine hours – my flight was meant to land on 21 March early morning,” said Mr Alee, who has not been allowed back into Australia since.

“For one year after that, I waited for Australia to reopen its borders to international students. I deferred my course twice.”

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But in March 2021, Mr Alee gave up and went to the UK instead where he is now a student at the University of Bradford.

He said he’s not alone.

“There are five students I live with in Bradford, who all went through similar experiences. In fact, I know at least 25 students who were studying in Australia, who could not return due to border rules, so they went to other countries,” Mr Alee said.

Ms Jackson acknowledges that countries such as the US, the UK and Canada are taking advantage of Australia’s hardline border policies.

“The government is aware of the fact that international education is very competitive and that competing nations like the US, the UK and Canada are taking advantage of this moment in time – their borders are not shut,” she said.

“We know that [the] numbers [of international students in] the UK have gone up. It’s impossible for us to tell whether that’s directly a drain from Australia, but we’re certainly aware and alert to it.

“And it’s certainly a matter Australia as a nation needs to address,” Ms Jackson added.

Bardi Aryal, director of Expert Education.

Source: Supplied

One way Australia could address this is by not slamming shut its borders at the drop of a hat, according to Mr Aryal.

“This kind of variant will come from time to time, but locking the border is not the solution,” Mr Aryal said.

“We’re one of the [most] highly vaccinated countries in the world. We’re nearing [a] 90 per cent [rate], which is remarkable. It’s a significant number when compared to countries like the UK, the US or Canada.”

Mr Aryal said, in order to boost consumer confidence and continue to attract international students, Australia needs to come up with a plan and stick to it.

“The government [should] give some sort of certainty in terms of opening the border, some sort of real plan. We don’t want to confuse [the students] … quarantine, non-quarantine, 72 hours, 15 days. We just want to give a solid plan to the students so they can rely on those plans,” Mr Aryal said.

The irony that other nations popular with international students have far lower vaccination rates than Australia is not lost on Ms Jackson.

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“Of course, there’s an irony in the fact that it’s harder to get here and we’re more vaccinated. [But] Australia has chosen a method for closing borders to control COVID and that’s been driven by medical advice.”

Ms Jackson is confident this is just a two-week delay and has a message for the students waiting to get back.

“We know you’re finding it very challenging. We know that waiting for – in some cases – a period of almost two years to be able to physically return to Australia is causing incredible stress on you.

“We are hoping very much and we’re fairly confident that it’s just a two-week delay. So we just ask you to hold on a little longer.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last month the planned return of international students to Australia was a “major milestone”.

“The return of skilled workers and international students to Australia will further cement our economic recovery, providing the valuable workers our economy needs and supporting our important education sector.” 

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